For much of American history, race has been the greatest barrier to a common vision of community. Race still remains all too synonymous with poverty: considerably higher poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics persist. But the future will most likely see a dimming of economic distinctions based on ethnic origins.
Since 1960, the proportion of African-American households at or below the poverty line ($22,000 annually for a family of four in 2008 dollars) has dropped from 55 to 25 percent, while the black middle class has grown from 15 to 39 percent. From 1980 to 2008, the proportion who are considered prosperous—households making more than $100,000 a year in 2008 dollars—grew by half, to 10.3 percent. Roughly 50 percent more African-Americans live in suburbs now than in 1980; most of those households are middle class, and some are affluent.
The most pressing social problem facing mid-21st-century America will be fulfilling the historic promise of upward mobility. In recent decades certain high-end occupation incomes grew rapidly, while wages for lower-income and middle-class workers stagnated. Even after the 2008 economic downturn, largely brought on by Wall Street, it was primarily middle-class homeowners and jobholders who bore the brunt, sometimes losing their residences. Most disturbingly, the rate of upward mobility has stagnated overall, as wages have largely failed to keep up with the cost of living. It is no easier for poor and working-class people to move up the socio-economic ladder today than it was in the 1970s; in some ways, it’s more difficult. The income of college-educated younger people, adjusted for inflation, has been in decline since 2000.
To reverse these trends, I think Americans will need to attend to the nation’s basic investments and industries, including manufacturing, energy and agriculture. This runs counter to the fashionable assertion that the American future can be built around a handful of high-end creative jobs and will not require reviving the old industrial economy.
A more competitive and environmentally sustainable America will rely on technology. Fortunately, no nation has been more prodigious in its ability to apply new methods and techniques to solve fundamental problems; the term “technology” was invented in America in 1829. New energy finds, unconventional fuel sources and advanced technology are likely to ameliorate the long-prophesied energy catastrophe. And technology can ease or even reverse the environmental costs of growth. With a population of 300 million, the United States has cleaner air and water now than 40 years ago, when the population was 200 million.
The America of 2050 will most likely remain the one truly transcendent superpower in terms of society, technology and culture. It will rely on what has been called America’s “civil religion”—its ability to forge a unique common national culture amid great diversity of people and place. We have no reason to lose faith in the possibilities of the future.
Adapted from The Next Hundred Million by Joel Kotkin. © 2010. With the permission of the publisher, The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.