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What Could Go Right? The poorest Americans doubled their net worth

Plus, singing baby sea turtles, Britain's first PM of color, and a civility test

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

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The poorest Americans doubled their net worth

“Everyone I know is doing better than they were two years ago,” someone told me this week. “Is that just because I’m a middle-aged white guy?”

I laughed at the way the question was phrased, but it is a valid one. And the truthful answer is contrary to the common narrative. In a late September edition of this newsletter, we covered a Credit Suisse report that showed that the bottom 50 percent of the United States population got wealthier during the pandemic. At the time the only coverage of this we saw was from Axios. There may have been others, of course, but by and large this story hasn’t broken into major headlines.

So this week, it was interesting to see The Intercept pick it up, illustrating data from the Federal Reserve—that we have also previously mentioned in this newsletter—that shows two things. One, that the net worth of the bottom 50 percent doubled during the pandemic. Two, that it’s the highest it has been in US history.

St. Louis Federal Reserve and Josh Bivens, Economic Policy Institute | Credit: The Intercept

How did we get here? Rising home prices, the pandemic-era stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits, and the tight labor market since. As for inflation, as Jon Schwarz, the writer of The Intercept article, says, “even as prices have gone up, wages have mostly kept pace.” Inflation has also been helpful for homeowners with fixed-rate mortgages. 

There are some other strange but good post-pandemic outcomes that were out of the scope of Schwarz’s article. The stimulus checks, for instance, had another positive knock-on effect for poor Americans: lots of people who wanted them signed up for a bank account in order to get them. This has led to the highest share of banked households in US history. In 2021, only 4.5 percent of the population was unbanked, down from 7.6 percent in 2009, when the numbers first began to be measured.

Meanwhile, the turn to remote work has led to a jump in the employment of American adults with disabilities, from 31 percent pre-pandemic to 35 percent in September. It’s a record, The New York Times reports, “in the 15 years the government has kept track.” And it’s not just jobs, but better jobs, with higher salaries and more flexibility. 

To come back around to Schwarz, these new numbers are “not to say that America’s poorer people are living in clover—they’re not.” But he arrives at the same conclusion our founder, Zachary Karabell, did in his TIME piece last week. Nobody likes inflation, but the poorest among us are better off now than they were in pre-inflation times. Cooling off the economy may help bring inflation down, but it may also threaten the circumstances that have benefited the Americans most vulnerable to economic headwinds. 

Quick links: representation wins

Liz Truss did not last longer than a head of lettuce, but we appreciated this graphic from GZERO Media on where women are currently in power. Truss is being followed up by Rishi Sunak, who will be Britain’s first prime minister of color, as well as the first Hindu. He’s the youngest, too. For what that means to young Brits of color—and given you speak TikTok—you can watch this sweet video. (Reports are also coming in that Sunak might be a magician.)

Many newsletter readers write in asking what they can do to enact change. Each person’s answer is different, we think, and the key is to find a way that inspires you. Here’s one that inspired us: British physicist Jess Wade has written 1,750 Wikipedia entries for female and minority scientists with notable but unrecognized achievements.

We also enjoyed meeting the “world’s first openly gay imam.”

Before we go

Did you know that baby sea turtles sing to each other from within their eggs so they can all hatch at the same time? You most certainly did not, because scientists have just discovered that over 50 sea creatures we thought didn’t communicate actually do. Including sea turtles! As for the synchronized hatching, it’s a bid to ward off predators through sheer numbers.

Can you pass this civility test written by The Progress Network (TPN) Member Robert Talisse, published in The Conversation? Quoting directly:

  1. Take one of your strongest political views, and then try to figure out what your smartest partisan opponent might say about it.
  2. Identify a political idea that is key to your opponent and then develop a lucid argument that supports it.
  3. Identify a major policy favored by the other side that you could regard as permissible for government—despite your opposition.

“If you struggle to perform those tasks,” Talisse writes, that means you have a “feeble grasp on the range of responsible political opinion.”

We have to give a shoutout to podcaster Lex Fridman, who is Jewish and grew up in the Soviet Union, for this master class on how to maintain moral limits but reach out with understanding. You won’t expect the outcome of this 2.5-hour interview with rapper Kanye West. If you don’t have that much time to spare—who does—you can skip around to the parts that address West’s recent social media controversy by following the timestamps in the video’s description.

Below in the links section, carbon-capturing drones, climate-adapting narwhals, and more.


(Not So) Secretly Sexy

Georgians are still showing up to vote early in record numbers. The turnout is historic.

  • 1,123,329 | Number of Georgians who have voted as of October 26
  • 743,772 | Number that had voted at this point in 2018

Influenza mortality has declined significantly over time, thanks to improvements in sanitation and neonatal healthcare, increased childhood vaccinations, and of course, influenza vaccines and flu strain monitoring. People born in 1940 had around a third of the risk of dying from the flu compared to those born in 1900, Our World in Data reports, while those born in 1980 had half the risk of those born in 1940.

Op-ed: More speech, not bans, is the lasting solution to hate speech

Is deplatforming individuals like Donald Trump, Kanye West, and Andrew Tate more harmful than helpful? | Read more 

Midterms, gerrymandering, bias, and conspiracy

This week on the What Could Go Right? podcast: Social media sensation and former high school government and law teacher Sharon McMahon joins us to discuss the need for a better understanding of how the government works. Plus, what to expect for the midterms, the latest on gerrymandering, and an encouraging trend in US military mental health programs. | Listen to the episode

These three countries are making major strides in public health

Three examples of the many strides public health officials, hand in hand with scientists and care workers, are taking to bring various maladies to heel | Read more 


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TPN Member originals 🧠

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Department of Ideas 💡
(A staff recommendation guaranteed to give your brain some food for thought.)

The boys feminism left behindCommon Sense
You don’t upend a 12,000-year-old social order without experiencing cultural side effects.

Why we picked it: We don’t have to choose between empowering girls and women and addressing the unique challenges facing boys and men. Doing both things benefits us all. —Brian Leli

New Book Alert

Privacy is disappearing. From our sex lives to our workout routines, the details of our lives once relegated to pen and paper have joined the slipstream of new technology. As a MacArthur fellow and distinguished professor of law at the University of Virginia, acclaimed civil rights advocate and TPN Member Danielle Citron has spent decades working with lawmakers and stakeholders across the globe to protect what she calls intimate privacy—encompassing our bodies, health, gender, and relationships. The Fight for Privacy takes the focus off Silicon Valley moguls to investigate the price we pay as technology migrates deeper into every aspect of our lives: entering our bedrooms and our bathrooms and our midnight texts; our relationships with friends, family, lovers, and kids; and even our relationship with ourselves.

Learn more about the book and buy it here.

Until Next Time

Don’t forget to (humorously pretend to) check your kids’ Halloween candy. 👇

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Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.