Selected Skirmishes: Reagan's America


In 1985, my friend Larry was enjoying a cocktail in a working-class New Jersey pub when he overheard one aged leftist say to another how depressed he was about Ronald Reagan, the fascist pig. A huge reelection mandate, a booming economy, no war—and right-wing politics. But his comrade was of a different mind. "We're headed for a huge depression," he augured, "that'll make the 1930s look like a picnic. There's gonna be mass unemployment, food's gonna be gone, people will starve. It's all going to collapse. Just mark my words." To which his associate could only shake his head and mutter, "I just don't think I can be as optimistic as you are, pal."

OK, so Reagan's Depression never arrived. We've got Homelessness. Poverty. AIDS. Poor-get-poorer while rich-get-richer. Runaway racism on campus. And it's all due—every last drop—to the unreconstructed attitudes of Reagan's men.

So the U.S. economy kicked butt in the '80s. But the little guy got flattened. You don't want to be caught dead in Reagan's America if you happen to be a poor/black/female/Hispanic/handicapped type o' guy. These are the downtrodden, the carcasses upon which rich Republican yups and yupettes step: the meek, the weak, the exploited, the Democratic-leaning. The rich—trickling down on God's children!

The case is made scientifically, you see, with the numbers. If you haven't seen them in the op-eds, on the news (Reagan Ruined Lives of the Poor—Film at 11), your doctor can legally pull the plug on you. But the 1990 Statistical Abstract of the United States contains lots of numbers which fail to make "Donahue."

So how about these? Jobs: The unemployment rate after four years of Carter was 7.1 percent and climbing. After eight years of Reagan it was 5.5 percent and falling. Income: Real per-capita disposable income grew 4 percent from 1977 to 1981, but 16 percent from 1981 to '88, despite the fact that Carter inherited the uptick of a business cycle and bequeathed a southbound express.

You're not surprised. You know that affluent white boys are grabbing megasalaries while the masses are flipping cheeseburgers, throwing the numbers—not to mention the poor—out of whack. Well, then, let's look at Black American Income: Real median household income fell by 10.5 percent 1977–1981; it grew by 11.5 percent 1981–88. Moreover, the percentage of black families making above $50,000 annually (in constant, 1988 dollars) also fell under Carter—from 6.6 percent to 5.6 percent, before dramatically rebounding to 9.9 percent under Reagan. This 77-percent gain was more than double the proportional increase in white family incomes. (A similar pattern—in the tank with Carter, on the rebound with Reagan—is seen in Hispanic incomes.)

And greed, you say? Well, the '80s were a Get Mo' time for some, including America's charities. Private foundation grants rose 68 percent in real terms in the eight years of Reagan's America, and those specifically for welfare programs rose 86 percent. All told, private charitable contributions rose from $48.7 billion in 1980 to $104.4 billion in 1988, an inflation-adjusted leap of 49 percent.

Quality of life? Boy, this gets complicated here. Let's make the wild assumption that people prefer to live where, oh, let's see—the murder rate, that's it—is low. Reagan's America must have done horribly there, with all those poverty-stricken homeless families living on the streets, and what with the rejuvenation of racial tension all due to that bigotry thing in the White House, and—oops, looky here: The murder victim rate fell by 13.4 percent under Reagan. And it fell by 20 percent for black males; if the homicide rate for 1980 (in Jimmy Carter's America) had prevailed in 1987 (Reagan's Racist Revival), 1,876 more black American men would have been murdered in that year alone.

Reagan didn't do all this, you say? But I thought he was some kind of a socioeconomic superman, picking up far-flung global trends and twisting them to his very will. He certainly took from the rich to give to the poor—we've got proof in the income distribution numbers. But that would be a really mean trick for Ronald Reagan—because the trend toward greater skewedness in income started in the early-1970s, and not just in the U.S. but in all the other advanced economies. (Reagan must have been an incredibly powerful governor of California.) All serious commentators (which includes Robert Reich and Mickey Kaus in The New Republic and excludes Kevin Phillips—in bookstores near you) concede that the problem predates Reagan's presidency.

So there are other factors, you say? Things like demographic trends, and autonomous world-market changes in the petroleum price, and wars in the Middle East, and Japanese competitiveness, and the 486 chip, and old court decisions deinstitutionalizing crazy people, which turn out to be hugely important in our social and political lives. And you'll now admit that maybe that homeless person in the park is no more Reagan's personal responsibility than are the 1,876 black men whose lives were spared in 1988.

Well, now, that's quite a deviation. Tantamount to an abdication. And that's very close to a violation of your fiduciary responsibility to pursue the logical course of your political contentions, an attitude smacking of the devil-may-care flight from personal integrity in the Boesky/Bork/Meese/North era of Ronald Reagan. And I, for one, am holding both Ron and Nancy personally liable.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.