A Nation of Flatliners

October 14, 1994|By CHRISTOPHER MATTHEWS

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Here is a column to save for election night. It will explain the results.

The question before voters in any balloting, whether for school board or president, is quite simply: Are you happy?

Most Americans are not.

Remember Ronald Reagan's old question, the one he used to nail Jimmy Carter in their one-sided debate?

''Are you better off than you were four years ago?''

When the ''Great Communica- tor'' put that query to the American voter in 1980, the typical household income was $31,000. Four years earlier, it had been the same $31,000. Was the typical American household ''better'' off? You bet it wasn't.

So let's talk about today. Based on the latest figures, the typical household income is at $31,000, the same level it was in 1980 when Ronald Reagan put his famous question to the American voter.

$31,000. This explains the ''I'm sick and tired and I'm not going to take it anymore'' mood of the American voter. People's incomes are smack back where they were in 1980, the year voters traded in the well-meaning Jimmy Carter for the swashbuckling Ronald Reagan. After experiencing the late 1980s' economic bump -- the figure rose to $33,000 -- we're back where we started.

I'm talking here about real income, the amount that's left after inflation. In those terms, we've lost the American dream and become a nation of flatliners. After hitting the $31,000 level in 1969, we've been stuck there for a quarter century.

So, there you have it. A generation of Americans lived at the same precise level: $31,000 median household income. We haven't gone up. We haven't gone down.

Just one difference: We're getting worried -- and angry.

The reason for the fear is obvious enough. Just look around you. The latest figures tell us that the gantlet of homeless who prod us daily with their Dixie cups is merely the on-site legation, visitors from the planet of the poor.

Thirty-nine million people, according to the Labor Department, are now caught below the poverty level. That's more than 15 percent of Americans -- a three-decade high point.

But if the scene looking down scares us, the scene looking up is the stuff of revolution. The top 5 percent of Americans, according to new government figures, haul in 20 percent of the country's income. Maybe this explains the lack of sympathy baseball fans showed this summer for the striking major league ($1.4 million average salary) ballplayers.

These are the ingredients of an explosive election season. The great American middle class is looking both ways and wondering what the future holds. The sound it hears from both directions is as aggravating as the sight. The poor reach out in anger and entitlement. The elite grab with one hand, admonish with another.

The angry middle prepares to strike its own blow. Watch the results election night. It's going to be one nasty evening, especially for those whom people blame for stealing the dream and leaving us a nation of flatliners.

Christopher Matthews is a syndicated columnist.

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