Back in the 80’s, I was into sports cars in a big way.

I’m not talking about the average gearhead’s dream of Corvettes, Camaros and Mustangs. I’m talking the real McCoys, the top shelfers: the Lamborghini Countach, the Lotus Esprit Turbo, The Vector W8, and the much-hallowed Ferrari F40. I was a loyal subscriber to Car and Driver and though I didn’t yet know how to drive, my dreams of one day operating such a magnificent piece of machinery would enchant me as I poured over the pages.

Of course, it was all a pipe dream. I knew I’d never have $250,000 to spend on a sports car, and even if I did, what a wasteful purchase it would be. But it was the 80’s, the pinnacle of materialism, affluence, and ridiculous narcissism. It was inspiring to fantasize about the untold spoils that may lie ahead in my lifetime.

I recall my parents’ dreams of that time, their own hopes for the future. Nothing too greedy, and certainly more realistic than my visions of sports cars: worldly travel in later life, a small A-frame on a lake somewhere, spoiling their grandchildren at Christmas, possibly an early retirement. Those expectations hardly seemed to be unrealistic to me or to them. Back then the promise of Reaganomics and supply-side policy seemed destined to be profitable for everyone.

What they didn’t know at the time was that wages had reached their apex in that very same decade. I don’t mean “dollar figure” of course, the dollars have gone up for sure, but the power to buy with those dollars has shrunk considerably over the last 30 years. And in inflation-adjusted dollars, middle-class wages have essentially remained stagnant since the early 1980’s, despite worker productivity going up. Of course, the average income of the top 1% of US earners has seen an incredible 240% growth spurt in that same time, and the trend is still on the rise.

It seems as though Reaganomics did exactly what the progressives of the time predicted and cautioned against—it created the largest income gap between the middle and upper classes that we’ve seen since the 1920’s. Lowering taxes on the rich resulted in growth, all right. But the vast majority of the profits that resulted from these 30 years of economic growth ended up in a very small number of hands. So disproportionately collected, in fact, that now the average annual income of top 1/100th of 1% of US Households (almost $24 million/year) is nearly 800 times the average income of the bottom 90% of us (a mere $30k). And the richest 10% of Americans now control 73% of Americans’ net worth.

As Reaganomics plugged along, fewer and fewer of the benefits flowed to the middle class, and the gap widened. Year after year. Decade after decade. And while middle-class wages stayed flat, the real costs of so many comforts and necessities on which that class depends—fuel, health care, health insurance, college tuition, food, energy—increased exponentially.

As the years passed, the dreams of my parents were whittled down gradually by the sharp edges of those increasing expenses and unmoving incomes. Paying the bills always trumps planning for future flights of fancy. So first they gave up the lake, then the A-frame, then the early retirement, then the scope of their travel. And though they still try to spoil the grandkids, I know it’s nowhere near the type of generosity they’d like to show.

That is the trend throughout the baby-boomers. Where once two partners dreamed of their future comforts, now they must juggle the numbers to see if they can afford health insurance, help their kids with college, or have any sort of savings for retirement. Such hopes are hardly aspirations to a greater standard of living, but rather a vision of mere subsistence. And framed against the success of their parents, they have truly taken a step backward.

It seems as the flow of profits continues to coalesce at the top of the earning scale, our dreams as Americans inversely begin to tarnish, deflate, and even fade altogether. The hardly wolfish desires that the middle-class once daydreamed have devolved into very real threats to home, health, and happiness. The high hopes that once motivated us to work hard, improve ourselves, and be more productive have been replaced with the worrisome, nagging fears of college tuition, a lost job, a foreclosed home, or an uncovered illness.

While fear is a good motivator, it is hardly a raison d’être. Dreams inspire. They brighten, they lead, they comfort. Fears impose great tolls on health, homes, hearts, and happiness. And for 90% of Americans, those fears have been growing for decades, reinforced by the cold reality after balancing the checkbook every month and praying for no red ink.

The smoky grit that spews from the daily grind has started to choke off the American Dream, a dream forged on the backs of “The Greatest Generation.” I know there are many who would like to pin that on the elephantine debt our nation has accumulated. The truth is it’s the huge bulk of profits flowing straight to the top, for 30 years, that has kept wealth out of the nest eggs of the working and middle classes, which in turn creates less tax revenue from their incomes to repay that debt.

If we’re going to salvage this dream, we need to see a fast, real, and substantial increase in wages for the bottom 90%. And after 30 years of a policy that has forged a super-wealthy ruling class, a class with so many billions they can form their own SuperPACs to shamelessly buy our democracy without affecting their standard of living, we know one thing—supply-side simply isn’t the answer. Lowering taxes on a class that already has more money than they can spend in 10 lifetimes will not improve wages for the rest of us.

Let’s polish off the blackened hopes of the 90%. First the middle class lost the luxuries of vacation homes and worldly travel, now we’re losing the securities of health coverage and a college education. If the trend continues our next generation may grow up seeing its parents worry (rather than dream) about keeping a roof, paying for shoes, or providing a meal. Who knows what the generation after may long for, if there is one, and if they survive long enough to notice.

Let’s not let the middle class struggle to provide the basics. Let’s find it in our hearts to save the American Dream before it disappears.

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