Michael D. Tanner
By any standard, 2016 has been a difficult year. Terrorism, crime, racial tensions, and the most divisive election in recent history have left Americans tired and stressed. Yet, as we head into this Thanksgiving season, we should recognize that, no matter the unpleasantness of the moment, there remains much to be thankful for.
Consider the economy. In the aftermath of a long, negative campaign, you could be forgiven for assuming that the economy is terrible. But while there are certainly many Americans who are suffering, overall, median household income in the United States increased by 5.2 percent last year, to $56,516. Median incomes increased almost across the board in every region of the country. Of course there is still room for improvement, but this is undeniably good news.
One reason for the income growth is that more Americans are working. Unemployment has been hovering around 4.9 percent this year, the lowest since 2008, and the labor-force-participation rate has actually ticked upward on a year over year basis. Yes, the recovery from the recession has been too slow, too many jobs are still part time, and too many still offer low wages. But this does represent real improvement.
We shouldn’t let the stress of a long, negative campaign obscure the real progress America made in 2016.
Concomitantly, poverty rates are down. Last year, 13.5 percent of Americans lived in poverty, a significant 1.2 percentage point decline from the year before. That’s still too many, but it does mean that 3.5 million fewer Americans were poor.
Most of this progress has come as a result of America’s vibrant, entrepreneurial free-market system, rather than government policy. The U.S. economy still produces wonders that improve our lives. Consider that in the last year alone, we’ve seen new devices that make possible robot assisted eye surgery, new drugs to treat pancreatic cancer and muscular dystrophy, and robotic eco-skeletons that enable the paralyzed to walk. We’ve also found ways to make crops more disease- and drought-resistant, which promise to reduce hunger around the world. And that hardly scratches the surface.
Just as America’s economy was painted in overly dire terms during the campaign, crime was made out to be a bigger problem than it actually is. In reality, with the exception of a handful of cities, crime rates are down. According to the FBI, the violent-crime rate has fallen by more than half in the last 25 years. The murder rate has fallen from 9.8 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 4.9 in 2015. There have been similar declines in the rates of rape, robbery, burglary, and theft.
And while terrorism catches the headlines, the chances that you will actually be killed in a terrorist attack remain absurdly low. Since 1975, 3,423 people in America have been killed by terrorists, including 2,983 on 9/11. The chances of dying in an attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist are 1 in 3.6 million per year. The odds go up slightly if you include terrorists born in this country, but they are still negligible. Obviously, we should do everything we can to keep Americans safe while protecting civil liberties. But there is no need to live in fear, either.
And for those concerned about the family, there’s good news on that front, too: More Americans are getting married. According to researchers at Bowling Green State University, there were 32.2 marriages for every 1,000 unmarried women age 15 or older in 2015, up from 31.9 in 2014. Our marriage rate is now the highest it’s been since 2009, and is showing signs of stabilizing after decades of decline. We are staying married, too. Last year, the U.S. divorce rate declined for the third year in a row, and is now at its lowest point in nearly 40 years.
Even the recent election, despite all its flaws, shows that we still value the peaceful transition of power based on the popular will. We are still free to cheer on our preferred candidate or criticize those we don’t like. Say what you like about the appropriateness of the Hamilton cast calling out Mike Pence, but in how many other countries would criticizing a government figure be met not with a silly tweet from the president-elect, but with arrest or execution? As Pence said to his children, “This is what freedom sounds like.”
Most important of all, this time of year reminds us that we still have the friends, families, and loved ones that make our lives complete. Yes, there is plenty of reason to be anxious about the future. But there is also more than enough reason to be thankful about the present. Happy Thanksgiving.
Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Going for Broke: Deficits, Debt, and the Entitlement Crisis.
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