Despite Americans’ reputation for cockeyed optimism, we have always been suckers for declension narratives—the idea that the Golden Age ended sometime in the past and we have the bad luck to live in a world that is uniquely awful, unfair, and corrupt. Donald Trump built a successful presidential campaign on making America great again and his successor Joe Biden routinely harkens back to a time when things were better and more on the level.
Three of today’s most widespread declension narratives involve fertility rates, income inequality, and economic mobility. We have fewer children than ever, goes the popular story, because nobody—even the wealthy!—can afford them anymore. The spread between rich and poor has never been bigger and it’s only increasing. Kids today will be the first generation in America to have a lower standard of living than their parents.
These stories resonate with us emotionally and have obvious political utility, but are they true? My guest today is Scott Winship, the director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He says that these declension narratives are misleading at best and outright wrong at worst. The reason families are getting smaller is because women have more control over their bodies and generally want fewer kids. When you factor in after-tax income and transfer programs, poor people are in fact doing better than ever. And his research shows that about 70 percent of us will make more inflation-adjusted income than our parents—a figure that hasn’t changed in the past 50 years.
Winship has a doctorate in social policy from Harvard and, prior to joining the right-of-center AEI, he did stints at the Brookings Institution and Pew Research Center. Nick Gillespie talks with Winship about why we want to believe the world we live in is getting worse, how his thinking about social progress and ideology has changed over his career, and how he thinks we might make it easier for poor people to participate more fully in society. Winship also gives a defense of the much-maligned discipline of sociology as a vital way of understanding the world around us.