There is an excellent article in the Nov/Dec issue of Dollars & Sense magazine, entitled, "Are we better off today?" The authors point out that when Ronald Reagan campaigned for the presidency in 1980, the question he asked voters to consider was, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" After he was elected, Reagan introduced a new social contract---one which we call "Reaganomics," and we are now nearly 40 years into that experiment. So it is entirely fair that we should ask, "Are we better off than we were 40 years ago?"
The article begins by looking at GDP. They concede, at the outset, that GDP measures our well being only crudely. While this index purports to measures the production of goods, it also measures the production of "bads," and makes no distinction between them. The profit from the sale of tobacco is counted alongside the medical cost of treating its effects. The profits of burning coal are counted alongside the costs of dealing with its pollution, and so forth. Everything is counted as a "good," when it may well be a "bad." Another failing of GDP is that some things are not counted at all, especially child care. If a woman cares for other peoples' children and gets paid for it, then child care is part of the GDP. But if the children involved are her own children, or the children of close blood relatives---and no cash changes hands---then this labor does not exist. Nothing counts unless you get paid for it.
But for lack of a better index, we start by looking at GDP. In 1974, the real per capita GDP was $24,427. Now it is $49,810, nearly twice as much. At first glance, it might appear that we all have twice as much of everything as we did in 1974. But that's not what happened. Productivity per worker nearly doubled in that period, but if your income is anywhere between the 20th and the 80th percentile, your share of that increase is zero. And your real income is barely equal to what it was 40 years ago. All of the increase was skimmed off by the top 20%-- and within the top 20%, most went to the top 1%. And even within the top 1%, most went to the top .01%. So if we look only at our economic well being, Reaganomics has been a disaster for all except the very wealthiest.
While economic equality has been in sharp decline, Racial and gender equality has improved. In the 70s, marriage was an unequal contract that subordinated women to their husbands, and domestic violence was rarely prosecuted. The 1994 Violence Against Women Act made women safer at home, and outside the home as well. The term "sexual harassment" was unknown in 1974---today it is a recognized form of discrimination that carries serious legal consequences. And racial equality has radically improved in the last forty years. In 1974, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were only a decade old, and were only beginning to have an effect. In 1974, the Jim Crow South was alive and well---today it is gone. But just as the doors to the middle class were opened to minorities, that class itself was under assault, and may soon be gone. This is a worthwhile article.