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A paint-by-numbers portrait of changing nation

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But an even bigger rewind to an earlier time seems to be happening with the poor.

In July, The Associated Press found a broad consensus among economists and scholars that the official poverty rate is on track to reach its highest level in nearly half a century, erasing distinct — if modest — gains from the 1960s "war on poverty" that expanded the safety net with the introduction of Medicaid, Medicare and other social welfare programs.

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The wealth gap between younger and older has grown into an unprecedented divide. Older people always have more net worth than younger adults on average, but now those 65 and over have 47 times more than adults under 35. It used to be only 10 times more, a quarter-century ago.

Overall, the value of goods and services produced in the country has returned to pre-recession levels, though with 5 million fewer people working. That makes the U.S. more productive and competitive. But when combined with meager income gains during that time, it also suggests we’re working harder for roughly the same pay.

What we pay » Housing prices have dropped by a striking 34 percent since late 2006. That’s good if — only if — you’re buying.

Tuition is up 15 percent at four-year public universities and almost 10 percent at private four-year institutions from 2008 to 2010.

Gas? It’s a rollercoaster. The U.S. saw 91 cents a gallon only 13 years ago, during Clinton’s presidency. The average price hit $2 in May 2004, $4 in June 2008, then plunged before that year’s election, spiked and rollercoastered along, sitting now at $3.74 a gallon.

In 2008, workers paid an average of $3,354 for a year’s worth of job-based health insurance, more than double their cost from nine years earlier, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported. In 2011, that average grew to $4,129. Not only did premiums rise, but many more workers were picking up the first $1,000 or more of health care costs as deductibles grew and employers shifted more health costs to employees.

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Who We Were » Norman Rockwell’s America may have come and gone, if it ever existed, but the much younger nation de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, saw in his 1830s travels is still recognizable in its older age. For all the new colors, bold strokes of the past still show.

Want some age-old perspective on why Republicans fought Obama’s health care law up to the Supreme Court this year? De Tocqueville wrote: "There is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one."

Both a scold and admirer, he found Americans obsessed with money, tending to "move forward by sudden impulses and short-lived efforts," quick to form agitating associations, reveling in an "always moving scene," loving change because it "seems to give birth only to miracles," and apt to rise from their stitched-from-many-nations roots to light up the world.

You’ll hear lots about change if you tune into the conventions. To be seen: whether we still believe in miracles.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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