Are You Better Off Today Than You Were Four Years Ago?
What a great question going into the 2024 presidential election!
It was asked over 40 years ago and led to one of the biggest landslide elections in U.S. history.
As the Harvard Kennedy School summarized:
In the final week of the 1980 presidential campaign between Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Republican nominee Ronald Reagan, the two candidates held their only debate. Going into the Oct. 28 event, Carter had managed to turn a dismal summer into a close race for a second term. And then, during the debate, Reagan posed what has become one of the most important campaign questions of all time: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Carter’s answer was a resounding “NO,” and in the final, crucial days of the campaign, his numbers tanked. On Election Day, Reagan won a huge popular vote and electoral victory. The “better off” question has been with us ever since. It’s simple common sense makes it a great way to think about elections. And yet the answers are rarely simple.
This is the question that Donald Trump, or whoever is the ultimate GOP nominee, should be constantly asking. At the next GOP debate, rather than debating Trump’s temperament and fitness to serve, while he is leading the GOP pack by 50 points, they should be hammering the question of whether average Americans are better or worse off than they were four years ago.
Let’s look at some specific metrics.
Start with microeconomic issues hitting Americans in the wallet, beginning with retail gasoline prices. Despite the push for EVs, most Americans drive gasoline fueled vehicles and visit the gas station every week. Are they better off compared to four years ago?
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gas is currently per gallon $3.84 compared to $2.62 four years ago, about a 27 percent increase.
Add the fact that in 2019, four years ago, the U.S. was energy independent for the first time since 1957. In 2022, the U.S. imported 8.32 million barrels per day of petroleum, hardly energy independent. The strategic petroleum reserve is depleted, and the Biden administration is doing nothing to rein in rising gas prices.
In fact they are making it worse. Biden just cancelled oil and gas leases in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. Biden also stopped the transport of fossil fuels by train, preferring far less efficient and more polluting trucks.
Another metric is food inflation as all Americans need to purchase and consume food. Food inflation currently sits at 4.9 percent compared to 1.8 percent four years ago. It has more than doubled in the past four years, with no sign of slowing down.
At a macroeconomic level, is our national debt higher or lower compared to four years ago? In 2022, the national debt was $30.8 trillion. Four years ago in 2018 it was $21.4 trillion. In four short years it increased by almost $10 trillion. It took America until 2008 to even reach $10 trillion in debt and in four short years we added 230 years’ worth of debt to our ledger.
That’s what America owes. How about what America spends? The annual U.S. budget deficit was $665 billion in 2017, rising to $2,772 billion in 2021. This is more than a fourfold increase in spending money we don’t have.
Budget deficits used to be measured in the billions. Under Biden they are in the trillions. Are Americans better or worse off because of their country heading further and further toward insolvency?
Most Americans live in a home that they purchased or are renting. As most homeowners have a mortgage, the monthly payment is an expense to most as either a mortgage or rent payment. This is another major cost of living, except for the homeless gracing our once-clean and beautiful cities.
How are mortgage rates compared to four years ago? The current 30-year fixed mortgage rate is 7.18 percent as of the end of last month. Four years ago, it was 3.58 percent, half of the current rate.
As most of a mortgage payment, particularly in the early years of the mortgage, is interest, doubling the interest rate means doubling the monthly payment. And that’s on top of higher food and gas prices as already noted.
Before worrying about a mortgage payment on a house, one must purchase it. As per the St Louis Fed, the average sales price of houses sold in the US for quarter two in 2023 was $495K. Four years ago, it was $377K, more than a $100K difference.
That’s great for home sellers but not for buyers. Individuals or families, looking for a bigger home, already paying more for food and gasoline, will now pay significantly more for a new home and for a mortgage compared to four years ago. How’s that “Build Back Better” plan working out?
Many of those other costs are charged on credit cards. U.S. credit card debt second quarter of 2023 was $1.03 trillion, compared to four years ago, second quarter 2019 at $848 billion, about $150 billion more. How will Americans pay off that debt? How will America pay off its national debt?
Purchasing power is another metric that continues to decline. The purchasing power of $100 in 2000 declined to about $68 in 2018 and by 2022 is down to $59. Are consumers better or worse off over the past four years?
How about foreign affairs? Four years ago we were not in a proxy war with Russia, the largest nuclear power in the world. Four years ago we weren’t sending depleted uranium shells to Ukraine to fire at Russia, causing death and destruction and contaminating the land, Chernobyl-style.
Four years ago, Afghanistan wasn’t fully controlled by the Taliban and 13 service members serving in Kabul were still alive. Four years ago, BRICS were something one built a house with, not an international anti-western geopolitical bloc representing, “almost half of the global population…and nearly one third of global GDP.” Are we better or worse off?
Aside from costs and spending, what about events of despair, such as drug overdose deaths? In 2017, there were 61 thousand overdose deaths. Four years later in 2021, the most recent data available, there were 98 thousand overdose deaths, almost a 50 percent increase. How many Americans know of someone who died of an overdose?
Look at the southern border which the current administration is hell bent on keeping wide open? As quantified by Pew Research, there were 1.7 million encounters at the US-Mexico border in 2021. As an aside, how many more crossers were not encountered? Four years ago, this number was only 304 thousand. That’s over a 5-fold increase over the past four years.
These are but a few important metrics, covering finances at a personal and national level, as well as important social issues that touch most Americans. Clearly based on these measures, Americans are worse off compared to four years ago.
Trump and Republicans at all levels should be asking this question constantly, during stump speeches, at rallies, or during interviews. “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”
It is a simple and common-sense question and no matter how much the Democrats and their corporate media campaign arm tries to deny, deflect, or obfuscate, the answer is clear.
Pound that question home every day between now and November 2024.
Image: Screen shot from NJLoetz video, via YouTube