Lucius Junius Brutus
Mitch McConnell was Doubly Right
Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a speech from the floor congratulating President-Elect Joe Biden on his Electoral College victory. But the rest of the speech, the part that wasn’t widely reported and likely will not be long remembered, offered a different message that has yet to be heard by most Americans. In fact, while six paragraphs of the speech congratulated the new President- and Vice President-elect, forty-one paragraphs were dedicated to that other message. That’s a message that the media has hidden from the American public for the last four years: America is doing well. Actually let me rephrase that. America is doing really well. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Americans were thriving at home, the US economy had reached new heights, and our country was strong on the world stage.
The simple fact of the matter is that under President Trump, despite the bluster, Americans lived in relative security and enjoyed the benefits of peace, security, and an unprecedentedly strong economy. As Senator McConnell began his speech, “over the last four years, our country has benefited from a presidential term filled with major accomplishments.”
Those remarkable achievements have been most noticeable in the economic realm. As even Barack Obama put it in his First Inaugural Address: “Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.” It turns out that in the last four years, Americans of all classes have enjoyed its ability to support economic mobility.
Senator McConnell was exactly right to point out this achievement, noting that in this past term our capital markets have reached record highs, unemployment hit unprecedented lows, and wages have risen especially quickly for low-income earners. These are all direct results of a presidential agenda that has pushed for tax reform, cut costly regulations, and inspired investment all across the country. As a matter of fact, everyone in this country has benefitted from this economic growth. In other words, things in America are getting more equal, rather than less. Between 2017 and 2019, the share of income held by the top 20 percent actually fell. The Gini Index for income inequality, which measures the income distribution, has also fallen over the same timespan. And this isn’t just academic jargon: it has real impacts for regular people. The Federal Reserve reported that, in the past three years, net worth increased 32.5% among the lowest income quintile and 30.7% among the second lowest, while declining modestly for high-income Americans. Growth was particularly high for African-Americans (at 32.1%) and Hispanic-Americans (at 63.6%) compared to whites (just 4%). The same is true of earnings: real median incomes grew 9% for Americans without a high school education compared to a 2.3% decline for college graduates.
The direct result of this strong economy and improving labor market conditions has been that poverty, properly measured, is lower than it’s ever been. Though the best measurement methods are still being debated, the consensus is clear. Bruce Meyer’s Consumption Poverty Measure, which factors in all the in-kind benefits and transfers that are still left out of the Official Poverty Measure, puts the current poverty rate at an all-time low of 2.8%. Richard Burkhauser’s Full-Income Poverty Rate, which allows us to compare the beginning of the War on Poverty to current conditions, puts it at 2.3%. Between 2016 and 2019, 6.6 million Americans (including some 2.8 million children) had been lifted out of poverty. These are undeniably some of the most remarkable successes in humanity’s long fight against material deprivation. The same picture holds true when you look at economic mobility. According to the Pew Economic Mobility Project, Americans overwhelmingly (84%) earn more than their parents did at their ages, corrected for inflation and family size. But even when you measure our mobility relative to our peers, the story remains heartening. Around 7% of children raised in the bottom income quintile reach the top quintile themselves, suggesting that the rags-to-riches story of American success remains possible, albeit rare. But even better, as AEI’s Michael Strain found, 30% of those kids raised in tough circumstances end up in the second- or third-highest quintiles – meaning they’ve achieved a comfortable, middle class life.
Economic and domestic victories, though, are only half the story. The successes of recent years have not stopped at the water’s edge. Though voted into office on the harsh rhetoric of pulling out of NAFTA, the recent trade agreement with Mexico and Canada essentially reaffirmed our partnership with our continental neighbors.
Perhaps our strongest victories have come in the Middle East. After nearly a decade bogged down in what seemed like an interminable quagmire under President Obama’s feckless leadership, we somehow broke out of the stalemate and made significant advances. We fought back against ISIS, have brought it to its knees, and accomplished a tactical strike that killed its leader Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi. We’ve stood firmly against Iran, withdrawing from an ineffectual nuclear agreement that had let it enrich uranium to twelve times its allowable levels and taking out one of its most prolific agents of mayhem in Qassem Soleimani. But the true inspiration for the future is not how we’ve waged war – it’s how we’ve made peace. The Abraham Accords that have led to the normalization of relations across the Middle East between Israel and many of its Muslim neighbors represents the most significant advances towards peace since the Oslo Accords nearly three decades ago. This is a legacy of which we should be proud, and which President-Elect Biden should build upon when he takes office. With the end of 2020 approaching, we should be inspired by the heroism and innovation of our countrymen. In an exceptionally difficult year, we should be appreciative of the miracles that we’ve been able to achieve. We’ve cut material deprivation to unprecedented levels and secured American strength for years to come. We’ve laid the groundwork for a stable Middle East in which children can grow up free of hatred and fear. And we’ve created a country in which, despite a raging global pandemic, we have been able to create a vaccine in just a matter of months. As we welcome President-Elect Biden into the White House, we should remember the lessons of the successes that we’ve been able to achieve under a government that respects its limits and empowers individuals. The future of our country depends on it.