Jimmy Wilson, a 49-year-old cook who works at a Detroit bar, is sitting outside on his break and fuming. “This doesn’t affect me at all,” he says, speaking about the Democratic debates streaming on the bar’s TVs. “I still have to go to work in the morning. I still have to pay taxes.”
Wilson’s Corktown neighborhood has been flourishing recently, attracting new shops and townhomes. But he worries that rising prices and new arrivals might push him out of what has historically been a working-class community. And he’s angry that he labors six days a week and doesn’t have more to show for it. “I should have the same opportunity that a kid that grew up in Bloomfield Hills has,” says Wilson, referring to an affluent Detroit suburb.
Most political observers agree that it will take far more than a presidential election to reverse a trend that has been in the works since the 1970s. But advocates see hopeful signs coming from candidates willing to talk about making major changes to an often undemocratic political system, as well as about ambitious economic plans.
A crop of Democratic presidential candidates is pushing policy proposals aimed squarely at America’s Jimmy Wilsons, those who work hard but feel they are not getting their fair share of the pie. And, amid Gatsby-era levels of economic inequality, there are more of them than ever.
But some believe the booming economy is Trump’s to own.
“I’m not sure if the Democrats really want to talk about the economy. They need to talk about leadership,” says longtime political consultant Mario Morrow, finishing up his burger at Clique, a popular diner in downtown Detroit. “If someone did not have a job four years ago and they have a job now, they are better off.”
BETTER OFF? DOESN’T ALWAYS FEEL THAT WAY
Progressive candidates argue that a more transformative economic program is needed to address the daily struggles of Americans and that such policy proposals can offer up a winning strategy in the high-stakes battle to prevent Trump from securing a second term.
On the policy menu of some of the top-tier candidates are populist economic proposals considered radical only four years ago: a wealth tax, breaking up the big banks, tuition-free college, and Medicare for All. So, is Jimmy Wilson’s cynicism justified—or does the Democratic Party’s leftward tilt signal that the country is finally ready to tackle economic inequality?
If Americans are better off than they were a decade ago, it doesn’t always feel that way. The recovery from the Great Recession has been slow and uneven, with low-income Americans—many of them Latino, like Wilson, or African American, like Detroit auto worker Steve Jennings—experiencing fewer of the benefits. As a group, minority Americans suffer from a staggering wealth gap with whites that leaves them little to fall back on.