“Money really stresses me out. As a teacher, I only get paid ten months of the year and I don’t have enough savings to make it through the whole summer. All I think about is how I’m going to pay the electric bill or my mortgage. I start to think of the extra shifts I have to take at the restaurant and that horrible feeling when a student of mine recognizes me. I live paycheck to paycheck. I just don’t get it. I have a master’s degree. I thought I did everything right. How did I get here?”
Those were the sobering worries of Sarah, a forty-two-year-old kindergarten teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina. “When I was a little girl, I just wanted to be a teacher,” she recalled, with equal measures of passion and wistfulness. She earned under- graduate and graduate degrees in education in her native state of New York before moving to North Carolina to pursue her career dream. But as much as she loved teaching her kindergarten kids, she found the economics of doing so in the modern US economy to be more challenging than she had ever imagined growing up, especially now that she was a single mother.
Sarah is not alone. Amy, a thirty-two-year-old yoga instructor working in Shreveport, Louisiana, had the same sense of frustration: “I grew up understanding the American Dream as: you get your education and do what you love, and you can make a living out of it. I just don’t think it’s realistic.”
My colleagues and I met Sarah and Amy in the fall of 2015, a third of the way through the Martin Prosperity Institute’s six-year project on the future of democratic capitalism in America. As part of the institute’s overall work, we conducted in-depth interviews with Americans like them around the country, across a wide variety of occupations, to better understand what they thought about their country and its political economy. We excluded people in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, because we were interested in how Americans outside that top bracket—the vast majority of the population—were experiencing America’s system of democratic capitalism. The annual household incomes of the people we interviewed ranged from $25,000 to $110,000, with a median of $75,000—regular Americans.
Other interviewees included Matt, a thirty-three-year-old Haitian-born Miami fireman, who worked enthusiastically on the side as a bail bondsman; Kira, an effervescent twenty-seven-year- old croupier in Saint Louis, Missouri; Ryan, a forty-year-old training manager and proud father of three in Salt Lake City, Utah; Linda, a thirty-year-old registered nurse in Hoboken, New Jersey; and Dan, a fifty-year-old truck driver based in Morristown, Illinois. Our goal for this research was to go deeper with fewer Americans, rather than seek quantitative significance using a formulaic set of questions. We interviewed and listened to each subject for hours, to learn how people were experiencing economic life across America, across many regular American occupations. Our agenda was to listen to our subjects’ thoughts and gauge their emotions.
We called it the Persona Project, and we came away from it with two clear findings.
The first, as exemplified by Sarah and Amy, was that people didn’t feel that the economy worked for them. Sarah struggled to make ends meet for her and her five-year-old son on $55,000 a year, and Amy had largely given up. Nurse Linda was similarly dispirited: “Right now, my student-loan bill every month is one- sixth of my salary . . . I was promised an amazing job with an amazing salary. Then when I actually get out of school, I’m working in a job that pays way less.” Not everybody was entirely negative, but the emotions ranged from discouraged to ambivalent.
The second finding was that people were decisively disengaged from politics. As Ryan put it: “I have to admit that I’m not a fan of politics. I’m not a fan of contention. With government and politics, I tend to check out, because when I look at it, the debates seem to go on between individuals and nothing gets done.” Kira volunteered: “My interest in politics is very limited, more because I feel like there’s so much to the game that I’m just not aware of.” Linda opined: “I hate saying this, but I am not that interested in politics.”
On the whole, our subjects were both perplexed and sheepish. They couldn’t figure out why following what they thought of as the American economic success formula wasn’t resulting in the kinds of favorable outcomes it was supposed to. And they were somewhat ashamed to have opted almost entirely out of the political process. They knew they should stay involved, but they felt minimal confidence that making the effort would indeed make a positive difference.
Their responses got me increasingly worried for the future of America’s much lauded combination of democracy and capital- ism. Simply put, the democratic part of the combination means that a majority of voting citizens determines who populates the government, which sets the rules for the functioning of the country and its economy. The capitalist part ensures that the means of production are largely in private hands and that markets allocate resources based substantially on supply and demand. For democracy and capitalism to thrive together, Americans like Sarah, Amy, and the others we interviewed must consent to it, as they traditionally have done. But for that to continue, they need to feel that capitalism is working for them—because otherwise the possibility exists that they will use their voting power to choose some other way to allocate resources and manage production.
That is why business executives and political leaders should be deeply concerned by the findings from the Persona Project. Sarah, Amy, and the others have every right to be disheartened and confused. Throughout the first nearly two and a half centuries of America’s existence as a sovereign state, most citizens experienced an advance in their economic status in the overwhelming majority of those years. Based on that trend, Americans have, unsurprisingly, used their votes throughout the years to support and perpetuate capitalism as America’s economic system. But that consistent economic advance has stalled, and has been for a longer period than ever before in American history.
Next week, I will explore how, more than forty years ago, a dangerous decline began that has created an unprecedented state of economic disparity – disparity that is clearly evident from these Persona interviews. Democratic capitalism only works when the average family benefits enough to keep voting for it. And right now, those families are not – which makes American democratic capitalism more vulnerable now than it was during the Great Depression.