Americans Have More than They Realize

According to Gallup, more Americans think of themselves as “have-nots” today than at any point since Gallup began posing the question almost thirty years ago, while fewer Americans see themselves as “haves.” (Please see Emily Ekins’s earlier post for an in-depth analysis from a different angle). But do Americans actually have less in 2015 than in 1988? Let’s dig into the data to see whether Americans might have more than they realize.

2015 is the first year when Americans spent more money dining out than they spent on groceries. Let’s examine why that might be. In 2015, U.S. GDP per person (adjusted for inflation) reached an all-time high. At the same time that average personal wealth is rising, many necessities like food are going down in price. As a result, spending on the basics takes up a smaller and smaller share of an American’s personal disposable income—dropping from 39% in 1988 to 32% in 2013. This means that Americans have more money left at the end of the day, which they can then choose to save, invest, or spend on luxuries like dining out.

Not only are Americans wealthier on average, but they are also working less. The average American worker in 2015 works 30 fewer hours in a year than her counterpart in 1988, and yet is almost $18,000 dollars richer in real terms.

HumanProgress.org advisory board member Mark Perry recently pointed out that today’s young Americans may actually be the luckiest generation in history, based on what they can buy with earnings from a summer job. And increases in real wealth do not capture technological advances, which also contribute to rising living standards. The quality and variety of available goods is improving across the board. Almost no one had a cell phone in the United States back in 1990, but today they’re ubiquitous—and more useful, with an app for just about everything.

In many ways, Americans have more today than ever before: more leisure time away from work, more disposable income left after basic expenses,  more choice in what they buy, and more advanced technologies at their fingertips.  Of course, there are still people who live in genuine need. The Great Recession and various growth-retarding policy decisions have done great harm, especially to the poor. Still, if the many positive trends that we are seeing continue, then hopefully more Americans will come to count themselves among the haves instead of the have-nots. To learn more about improving living standards in the United States and beyond, pay a visit to HumanProgress.org.