Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan by three points in the late October 1980 Gallup poll taken just days before a staggering eighty-one million Americans tuned into the only debate between the two candidates. One week later, Reagan defeated Carter by ten points, with fewer than eighty million Americans voting for both of them. That debate is best known for Reagan’s rueful “There you go again” and the question he posed directly to the electorate: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Today, Reagan’s legacy is under fire, as politicians and analysts scrutinize the returns from decades of tax cuts, globalization, economic growth, and deregulation and ask, Are we better off than we were forty years ago? By some objective measures, the answer is an emphatic yes. Life expectancy at birth was seventy-four years in 1980 compared to seventy-eight years in 2020. Real GDP per capita had nearly doubled, from $30,000 to $58,000. As of 2019, real median household income had increased from $52,000 to $69,000. Modern technology, from the internet and the smartphone to life-saving medical treatments and air-purifying pollution controls, has improved life in countless harder-to-quantify ways.
By other measures, the picture is less rosy. The share of never-married adults (ages 25–50) increased from 13 percent to 35 percent from 1980 to 2018; among those in the bottom third of the income distribution, the increase was from 12 percent to 42 percent. The share of young adults (ages 18–29) still living with a parent increased from one-third in 1980 to half in 2020. Children born in the 1940s and ’50s had an 80–90 percent chance of earning more than their parents had by the time they reached age thirty-six, around 1980. By contrast, only half of children born in 1980 were earning more than their parents had at the same age by the mid-2010s. And while thirty weeks of the median male wage were sufficient to provide housing, healthcare, education, and transportation for a family of four in the mid-1980s, by 2018 a full year’s wages would not get the job done.