Looking forward
Sometimes, Things Get Better

We devote a lot of time on this blog to grappling with worrisome trends for American public policy—rising healthcare costs, bankrupt state pension systems, the declining support for liberal democratic values among young people.

But it’s important to remember that the media has an inherent bias toward fixating on negative developments and de-emphasizing positive ones—and that while there are plenty of things to worry about in America, there are also many reasons to be hopeful.

In that spirit, here are three positive social-economic indicators that came to light in the last four weeks (coupled with requisite caveats):

(1) Black people are in prison at a lower rate than any time since 1993, as Stanford professor Keith Humphreys pointed out in the Washington Post. America still has more people in prison than other advanced countries (thanks largely to our much higher crime rate), but the incarceration rate has been falling over the past decade—and the racial disparity has ticked downward especially rapidly.

(2) The achievement gap between rich and poor children is narrowing, according to a recent study from some of America’s leading sociologists. “From 1998 to 2010, the school readiness gap narrowed by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading,” they wrote in a New York Times op-ed summarizing their results. “The gaps that remain are still vast. But even this modest improvement represents a sharp reversal of the trend over the preceding decades.”

(3) Finally (and this is arguably the most significant): New Census data show that median household income ticked up sharply (by 5.2 percent) in 2015, the first major bump since the end of the recession. Josh Barro puts the results in context: “Today’s Census income report is really stunning. It says, in one year, 2/3 of the drop in median household income since 1999 has been erased.” The major caveat: The gains were concentrated entirely in urban areas. Incomes in rural areas remained stagnant.

Public opinion certainly doesn’t reflect a view that things in America are getting better. And of course, for many people, in many places, they aren’t. Along many dimensions, racial and class tensions have been widening. But the public mood is often more of a lagging indicator of social and economic conditions than an accurate forecast for the future. And the steady trickle of good news from social scientists leaves hope that our outlook will be much different—much brighter, even—five or ten years from now.

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