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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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  • markterribile

    WHY is education improving? Or is it? Is the gap narrowing because rich children are now the beneficiaries of a rotten education? If things are getting better for poor kids, is it because the public schools are getting better, or because kids are escaping the public schools?
    In other words, is the news really good news, or just better make-up on the pig?

    • M Snow

      According to the study, poor children are actually improving their readiness. That’s the good news. The bad news is that poor children are still almost a year behind in readiness and that the effects of the improvements of recent years disappear by fourth grade. The authors posit various causes for the improvement, but none seem particularly easy to boost with public policy.

    • Andrew Allison

      The answers to your questions are included in the report linked to. The key point is that it discusses the readiness of children entering kindergarten, i.e says nothing at all about the appalling “education” they are going to receive for the next 13 years. That low income kindergarten entrants are catching with high income entrants is good news, but what we should really be looking at is what happens thereafter.

    • Fred

      I would ask the same question about black incarceration. WHY has it decreased? Is it because black people are committing fewer crimes (a good thing) or because political correctness and fear (of riots, bad publicity, accusations of brutality, etc) have infected the legal process (a very bad thing that portends a spike in crime in the near future)?

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Well, maybe it is only two cheers for betterment instead of three.

    So the median household income in 2015 rose to $56,500. So what?

    What they failed to tell us is that in 2007 the household median income was $57,357 and in 1999 was $57,843.

    So since 1999 household average income has declined 2.3% or one fifth of one per center per year over the past 15 years. In other words, household income is still FLAT and STAGNANT.

    Moreover, it is an election year and the government tends to spin our positive economic statistics that often much later are corrected based on newer data or compared with long term trends that seem to wash out the spin.


    • FriendlyGoat

      Well, the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 were supposed to solve all that. Unfortunately, nearly no one seems to understand or admit that they work in reverse. It’s not like we haven’t had any growth or any generation of wealth since the late nineties. It’s just that when high-end taxes are significantly cut, the low end suffers instead of prospering—-while the gains all percolate upward.

    • Andrew Allison

      Income rose only if you believe that the Census Bureau has not been politicized in the same way as other government agencies. Given that workforce participation and real wages are at levels last seen in the 1970s, I simply don’t believe it.

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