After running a campaign on the idea that America was an impoverished wasteland, Donald Trump has spent his presidency bragging about the economic expansion that began under Barack Obama but continued under him. Though he might be a glutton for credit, Trump isn’t wrong, exactly, when he celebrates the “record economy” in his tweets: Unemployment in the United States is at a 50-year low, the stock market is soaring, and GDP is growing at a brisk clip. Polls have found that people are confident in the state of the economy.
But that doesn’t mean Americans really believe a rosy overall economy is improving their lives.
A Monmouth poll released on Monday provides more evidence that this economic recovery is not lifting everyone up equally. Of the 801 American adults surveyed, just 12 percent believed they’ve “benefited a great deal from recent growth in the US economy.” And while 31 percent indicated “they have received some benefit from the economic upturn,” 27 percent said that they haven’t been helped “much,” and another 27 percent said that they haven’t been helped “at all.” Just 18 percent of respondents said that Trump’s policies helped middle-class families a lot, and high earners were more likely to say the rising economy gave them a bump: 58 percent of people who make $100,000-plus a year said they’ve benefitted, while just 34 percent of people earning less than $50,000 per year and 42 percent earning $50,000 to $100,000 said they did.
These numbers aren’t necessarily shocking. Nor are they that different from 2018 or 2017, right before Trump took office. That suggests the fears of poorer and middle-class Americans, which helped Trump get elected, have been far from relieved. Anecdotally, some Trump voters in swing states have been frustrated that his promises to bring back manufacturing have not materialized. That means economic populism could still be a strong message in 2020, despite all those upward-facing indicators.
The Monmouth poll also found that people were greatly concerned about healthcare affordability, with 19 percent of respondents citing that as a top concern, up from 13 percent last year. That in part explains why left-wing Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been calling for Medicare for all along with the erasure of student debt and tuition-free higher education.
Those policies seem aimed at voters who are still concerned about their day-to-day survival even as the economy as a whole hums along. Wages are now rising, but not yet enough to erase the damage done by the last decade’s downturn. Americans also have to contend with skyrocketing costs for the essentials of life: education, healthcare, and housing. Trump’s signature legislative accomplishment, the tax cut bill of 2017, mainly benefitted the rich, and some taxpayers were outraged when they got smaller refunds this year, even though in many cases that was because their regular pay had gone up.
What the Monmouth poll measures is not whether a growing economy is benefitting ordinary people, but whether those people see themselves as benefitting from it. Maybe Americans are better off than they were a few years ago on average, but maybe they’re also more aware of inequality, or have a sense of being cheated. Trump’s message in 2016 was partially about how economic statistics masked the pain of real people—he went so far as to call those statistics, like unemployment numbers, “phony.” That evidently resonated among key swing voters in certain Midwestern states. But now Trump is the incumbent who has to claim that America is doing awesome, and that the economy is truly benefiting everyone. The question is, will people believe him?
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