Report | Budget Taxes and Public Investment

We’re not broke nor will we be

Briefing Paper #310

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Policy choices will determine whether rising national income leads to a prosperous middle class

Many policymakers and pundits claim “we’re broke”1 and “can’t afford”2 public investments and policies that support workers. These claims are meant to justify efforts to scale back government programs and public sector workers’ wages and benefits. The “we’re broke” theme also implies that America’s working families should be satisfied with the status quo in terms of wages that have been stagnant for 30 years.

Despite the rhetoric, it is clear that “we” as a nation are not broke. While the recession has led to job loss and shrinking incomes in recent years, the economy has produced substantial gains in average incomes and wealth over the last three decades, and economists agree that we can expect comparable growth over the next three decades as well. Between 1980 and 2010, income per capita grew 66.4%, and wealth per capita grew 73.2%. Over the next 30 years, per capita income is projected to grow by a comparable 60.6%. In other words, “we” are much richer as a nation than we used to be and can expect those riches
to rise substantially in the future.

So who is the we in the “we’re broke” mantra? The recession has certainly been a rough patch of road for many families, but the output produced by corporations in the private sector has already recovered to pre-recession levels, and these firms’ profits were 21.7% higher overall, driven largely by the 60% jump in pre-tax profits enjoyed by firms in the financial sector.


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