The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We are living in a new gilded age. 2018 proves it.

A homeless person near the entrance of a Metro station in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Boy, 2018 has been a tough year for the United States.

No, I’m not talking about the onslaught of news detailing Russia’s interference in our democracy (though that should make anyone sick). I’m talking about something deeper — the wellness of America. Because, if you take a step back a look at the totality of trends facing our country, it’s clear something isn’t right.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, reported in November that life expectancy for the average American ticked downward for the third year in a row. The news attracted a storm of attention, given the record number of suicides and surging drug overdoses driving the trend — despite progress in reducing deaths for top sources of death in the United States, such as heart disease or cancer.

Other trends, however, passed by more quietly. In health care, for example, maternal deaths inched up slightly this year to 20.7 per 100,000 live births, according to data from the United Health Foundation. In fact, giving birth in the United States has become increasingly deadly over the past few decades, placing our country in the same category as developing nations such as Afghanistan and Swaziland. And the rates are even worse for mothers of color.

Infants are facing their own hurdles as well. The latest CDC data released this year shows that U.S. infant mortality rates, after steadily falling over the past few decades, haven’t decreased significantly for five years. Today it stands at 5.9 deaths per 1,000 births, far higher than the average rate of 3.9 deaths for developed countries. Again, it’s even worse for infants of color.

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We can attribute many of these trends to a lack of access to health care, which itself is looking pretty grim. Data released this month by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that, in 2017, we’ve begun to reverse gains in health-care coverage for the first time since the Affordable Care Act was enacted in 2010.

Okay, but what about the economy? The stock market might have stumbled in the past month, but most Americans still fared pretty well this year, right?

Yes, but there are worrisome holes here, as well. Median household incomes rose for the third-straight year in 2017, but the economy hasn’t benefited everyone equally. In fact, median incomes fell for African American households.

And while unemployment is at the lowest rate in almost 50 years, the percentage of people in the labor force has remained mysteriously low relative to other developed countries. Experts say part of that trend can be explained by demographics as baby boomers retire, but U.S. participation rates also lag for people of working age. One analysis from this summer found that if the United States had the same working-age participation as Britain, we’d have to factor another 11 million people into the unemployment rate.

Consider, also, that despite persistent economic growth, the number of people receiving food-stamp benefits remains more than 50 percent higher than the number before the beginning of the Great Recession. Or that homelessness in the United States ticked up for a second year in a row. Or that child homelessness is surging in some parts of the country.

And if another recession is actually the horizon, as many forecasters predict, it is clear many Americans aren’t prepared for it. A Federal Reserve survey from earlier this year found that 40 percent of adults don’t have the savings to cover a $400 emergency and that more than a quarter skipped a medical treatment because of the cost in 2017. And, once again, financial well-being is even worse for people of color.

There are other troubling trends to keep in mind: High school-level attainment might be at our highest rates ever, but college readiness continued to fall, as college entrance exams from this year show. Test scores for fourth- and eighth-graders didn’t do too well either, and racial disparities in education widened.

Meanwhile, most Americans believe race relations have gotten worse over the past two years. The number of reported hate crimes increased by 17 percent according to the most recent available data — though the actual number could be as much as 40 times larger. And the United States is becoming more racially segregated, both in terms of our schools and where we live.

I could go on. Climate change is making weather events more extreme and more expensive, hurting low-income Americans the most. Polarization is forcing Americans further and further apart to the point that we’re increasingly unable to connect with one another. Trust in our society’s institutions — such as churches, our courts, the media and government — has eroded to new lows.

Perhaps this explains why United States fell four spots in the World Happiness report in 2018. In fact, the Gallup-Sharecare Index reported in March that it saw significant declines in well-being in 21 states in 2017, the most states with a drop in a single year since the index began measuring well-being at the height of the 2008 financial crisis.

There are many things contributing to these trends, but if we pull one takeaway from 2018, it’s that rising inequality is deepening fissures within American society. This divide has afforded those doing well to sail forth in the booming economy and escape the headwinds facing our country, but the rest of America — especially low-income households and minorities — haven’t been so lucky.

This is the new gilded age — to borrow insight from Mark Twain. It appears gold from the outside, complete with stunning economic growth and opportunity. But beneath that shimmering layer are social problems that are only getting worse. Until we address that underlying inequality, it’s tough to see the coming years getting any better.

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