Boiling Point: Democrats, Republicans, and the Decline of Middle-Class Prosperity
Not only are the rich getting richer, but there are more of them around. In 1978, the Internal Revenue Service received 8,964 returns declaring adjusted gross incomes of more than $1 million in today’s dollars. In 1990, its most recent report, it counted 60,667 returns at that level.
More people are also poorer. Since 1978, the proportion of households falling below the poverty line has grown by 26.4 percent. Among families with children, the increase has been 38.3 percent. And there are fewer Americans in the middle. Since 1978, the proportion of families making between $25,000 and $75,000, computed in constant dollars, has dropped from 58.4 percent to 53.9 percent. The latter figure would have fallen even further were not more households relying on two earners.
Figures like these fill the pages of Boiling Point, in which Kevin Phillips describes at length the anger of millions of Americans over their loss of income and status during the last dozen years. Having given generous margins to Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Kevin Phillips tells us, they now see themselves as having been betrayed by “an elitist philosophy that celebrated investors, entrepreneurs, and the rich while neglecting the interests of a middle class that found itself increasingly threatened.”
Some of Phillips’s findings are especially revealing. For example, more than half of the additional income generated between 1977 and 1989 went to the top 1 percent of America’s households. In 1980, the compensation of corporate chairmen averaged thirty-five times that of a typical worker. By 1990, average pay and perquisites of the CEOs were 135 times higher. In 1950, a thirty-year-old man with an average salary could expect a paycheck 58 percent higher ten years later. In 1977, he would see his pay rise by only 21 percent during the next decade. Moreover, in 1990, almost a quarter of the unemployment claims filed in Massachusetts came from college-educated workers; and more than half of Arizona’s new welfare recipients had never before applied for such assistance.
For a quarter of a century, Kevin Phillips has identified himself as having special insights into the popular mind. As a consultant, he is much attended to by many in political and corporate circles who often feel otherwise remote from the opinions and passions of ordinary Americans. Thus Phillips intersperses his statistics with allusions to “voters from the small-town South, blue-collar Peoria, Levittown or the ends of Northern urban subway lines,” whom he characterizes as the “children and grandchildren of Alabama sharecroppers, Montana copper miners, Boston Irish policemen and Hungarian-American steel-workers in Pittsburgh.” Nor is Phillips simply a detached analyst of an aggrieved public. His tone makes clear that he wants to speak as their tribune and articulate deep “middle-class frustration” and “fear of downward mobility.”
But should the ideology and policies of the Reagan-Bush years be called a “betrayal”? After all, in three successive elections those men and their policies won significant victories. And vital …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.