Opinion: Many Americans believe the economy is rigged

The economy is driven by greed and shot with uncertainty. That’s what Americans told two researchers who conducted over 30 small-group conversations over the past two years.

A reflection of the U.S. Capitol Building on Sept. 25, 2019. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

When asked what drives the economy, many Americans have a simple, single answer that comes to mind immediately: “greed.” They believe the rich and powerful have designed the economy to benefit themselves and have left others with too little or with nothing at all.

We know Americans feel this way because we asked them. Over the past two years, as part of a project with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, we and a team of people conducted over 30 small-group conversations with Americans from almost every corner of the country. While national indicators may suggest that the economy is strong, the Americans we listened to are mostly not thriving. They do not see the economy as nourishing or supporting them. Instead, they tend to see it as an obstacle, a set of external forces out of their control that nonetheless seems to hold sway over their lives.

Take the perceived prevalence of greed. This is hardly a new feeling, but it has been exacerbated recently by inflation and higher housing costs. Americans experience these phenomena not as abstract concepts or political talking points but rather as grocery stores and landlords demanding more money.

Income inequality has been in decline over the last few years. But try explaining that to someone struggling to pay the rent. “I just feel like the underdog can’t get ahead, and it’s all about greed and profit,” one Kentucky participant noted. It is not necessarily the actual distribution of wealth that troubles people. It is the feeling that the economy is rigged against them.

There is a clear disconnect between the macroeconomic story and the micro-American experience. While a tight job market has produced historic gains for lower-income workers, many of the low-income workers we spoke with are unable to accumulate enough money to build a safety net for themselves. “I like the feeling of not living on the edge of disaster,” a special education teacher in rural Tennessee said. “[I am] at my fullest potential economically” right now, but “I’m still one doctor’s visit away from not being there, and pretty much most people I know are.”

If there is a singular explanation for dissatisfaction with the economy, it is a lack of financial certainty. While direct government assistance early in the pandemic certainly helped many in 2020 and 2021, millions of households still struggled to get food and many millions fell behind on rent. These feelings of instability do not dissipate quickly, especially when rising prices make trips to the store adventures in budgetary arithmetic and the threat of an accident or a surprise medical bill looms around every corner. “Uncertainty really affects your well-being, it affects what you do, it affects how you behave,” said a unionized airport worker in Virginia who tutors in the evenings.

An absence of economic resilience prevents people from spending time with family, from getting involved in their community and from finding ways to build a safety net. “The way the economy is going right now, you don’t know where it’s going to be tomorrow, next week,” a human resources employee in Indiana said. Well-being “is about being financially stable. It’s not about being rich, but it’s about being able to take care of your everyday needs without stressing.”

Stress is a rampant part of American life, much of it caused by financial insecurity. Some people aspire for the mansion on the hill. Many others are looking just to get their feet on solid ground.

One does not need to look hard beyond traditional metrics to see the prevalence of insecurity. In June, an industry report found that auto loan delinquencies were higher than they were at the peak of the Great Recession. Credit card use has swelled, and delinquencies are at among their highest rates in a decade. After hitting a historic low in 2021 thanks to the expansion of the child tax credit, child poverty more than doubled in 2022 after the tax credit’s expansion expired. Also in 2022, rates of food insecurity reached their highest levels since 2015.

Such trends do not affect all Americans equally. Most disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic households, which perhaps helps explain Republicans’ gains in these communities, according to recent polls. Geography plays a major role, too. In some parts of the country — particularly rural areas — many people feel they have been left out of the progress and promise of the high-tech economy. Even if their finances remain in good health, they seem to fear for the future of their community, and they blame the economy.

The political system is supposed to make all this better. Instead, even as both major parties have vied to cast themselves as the standard-bearer of the working class, many Americans see politicians as unable or unwilling to do anything to help them. “In my democracy, I’d like to see us get rid of Republicans, Democrats,” one Kentucky participant told us. “Just stand up there, tell me what you can do. If you can do it, I don’t have to care what you are.” Many Americans seem to see Washington as awash in partisan squabbles over things that have little effect on their lives. Many believe that politicians are looking out for their political party, not the American people.

It should not be surprising, then, that so many are so pessimistic about a seemingly strong economy. A rising gross domestic product lifts lots of boats, but many Americans feel as if they are drowning.

What would make the people we talked to less stressed? The ability to accumulate savings. Low-wage workers have seen their incomes rise only for many of these gains to be wiped out by inflation. And the costs of housing, health care and child care can quickly absorb even a very robust rainy-day fund. Without a safety net that can propel people into security, the threat of these costs will continue to make many Americans feel unstable, uncertain and decidedly unhappy about the economy.

A helpful starting point would be to address benefit cliffs — income eligibility cutoffs built into certain benefits programs. As households earn more money, they can make themselves suddenly ineligible for benefits that would let them build up enough wealth to no longer need any government support. In Kansas, for example, a family of four remains eligible for Medicaid as long as it earns under $39,900. A single dollar in additional income results in the loss of health care coverage — and an alternative will certainly not cost only a buck.

Reforming these types of cliffs for health care, child care, housing and food assistance programs would allow the millions of households receiving state aid to achieve a sense of stability. Take this mother in Chicago who told us that her income is just above the eligibility cutoffs. The cliff “knocks me out of a lot of the opportunity to qualify for a lot of the programs that could assist in benefiting myself and my child,” she said.

The Americans we listened to want resiliency so they can feel that they are in control of their lives and that they have a say in the direction of their community and their nation. They want a system focused less on how the economy is doing and more on how Americans are doing. As one Houston man observed: “We’re so far down on the economic chain that we don’t have nothing. It seems like our voices don’t matter.” But they do matter. The rest of us just need to listen.

Katherine J. Cramer is a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jonathan D. Cohen is the author of “For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.