Last week, the White House put out a video of President Trump bragging about the latest jobs report that had all the production value, sincerity, and warmth of an ad for a used-car dealer.
He checked off all the minority groups that are benefiting. African-Americans, Hispanics and “Asians” have the “lowest unemployment rate in the history of our country,” crowed Trump.
“Our economy is strong, our country is great, we’ve never been in a better position,” he said.
But is that true?
That Trump can only understand national strength though the prism of economic numbers — or perhaps more directly, numbers that allow him to take credit for something - is hardly a shocker.
But is America as strong and great and well-positioned as he claims?
Let’s take a look at the numbers.
On a positive note, the poverty rate in America stands at 13.4 percent, which means it’s now fallen for five straight years. The bad news: It’s still nearly 20 percent higher than it was in 2000 and, compared with other developed countries, is one of the highest in the developed world. When it comes to children, one in 5 American kids lives in poverty - a number that is far higher than the average in other developed countries..
Since passage of Obamacare, the number of Americans without health insurance has dropped dramatically, from more than 44 million in 2013 to 28 million today. The bad news is that, in the richest country in the world, 28 million Americans still don’t have health insurance and even worse, because of the president’s war against Obamacare, the number went up by 700,000 in 2018.
Around the world, maternal mortality rates have dramatically declined — making it one of the signature development achievements of the past quarter-century. Things in the United States are moving in a different direction — the maternal mortality rate has steadily increased, from 10.3 per 100,000 live births in 1991 to 23.8 in 2014. America is only the developed country where the number of mothers to die in childbirth is going up.
Among black mothers the situation is even worse. Not only are they three to four times more likely to die when giving birth – they are dying at a similar rate to women in Uzbekistan, which is far from being a first world country.
Things aren’t much better for American babies. The country’s infant mortality rate is 5.9 deaths per 1000 live births, which might not seem that bad, but it is 2 points higher than the average in other developed countries.
Among African-Americans, the rate is nearly double — at 11.4 deaths per 1,000 births.
America is also the fattest country in the developed world — with nearly 40 percent of Americans considered obese. It’s small wonder then that life expectancy in the United States has declined for three years, something that hasn’t happened in this country in a century.
What contributes to these troubling mortality figures is a rate of gun violence far greater than the rest of the world, a dramatic increase in deaths from drug overdoses, and a national suicide rate that has gone up by 33 percent since 1999 — and is it at highest point since World War II. In fact, suicide is now the second leading cause of death in the United States for those between the ages of 10 and 34.
It’s hard to reconcile Trump’s claims that the country is doing great with the reality that a disturbingly large number of Americans are killing themselves.
But at least Americans are happy right?
Not so much, according to the annual World Happiness Report, which has America ranked number 19. According to the report’s authors, “This decline in happiness and mental health seems paradoxical. By most accounts, Americans should be happier now than ever. The violent crime rate is low, as is the unemployment rate. Income per capita has steadily grown over the last few decades.”
The authors offer a few explanations for this paradox — including the health metrics referenced above as well as the astonishingly high usage rates in the United States of digital media, which has seemingly contributed to a troubling decline in happiness among American children and adolescents. But the UN’s report is consistent with other pieces of data. For example, according to Gallup’s satisfaction index, only 32 percent of Americans are satisfied with “the way things are going in the United States.” In fact, it’s been 15 years since a majority of Americans have felt positively about the direction of the country.
Contrary to Trump’s rosy statements, while the US economy might be doing great it’s not translating into a healthier, happier, or more content population. For all of the overwhelming focus of political leaders and the news media on economic statistics, we’re missing a vitally important and underreported story about health and well-being metrics that paint an increasingly bleak picture.
Indeed, one doesn’t even have to look at the troubling numbers above. Speak to your friends, family, and neighbors. Hear them talk about their growing economic anxiety as health care costs continue to rise and parents wonder how they can pay for college or provide for their kids; the panic elicited by the latest mass shooting; or the headshakes over the country’s political divides growing racial tensions, fanned by the president himself. Taken together it’s all added to a larger crisis of confidence — and one that seems particularly acute among younger Americans.
Trump, like any politician, wants to project the image that everything is great. That’s politics.
But politics too is understanding the tumult underneath the surface. The candidate who grasps the brass ring in November 2020 is likely to be the one that taps into the larger discontent among the American people, but also one who charts a path forward out of our current mess. Because if one thing is clear, it’s that Americans have good reason to be unconvinced that the latest jobs report means the country is moving in the right direction.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.