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Are you better or worse off than you were four years ago?

A Commentary By Brian Joondeph

This would be a perfect question for a Rasmussen Reports survey, especially ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Ronald Reagan asked this question of Jimmy Carter in their single debate a week before the 1980 presidential election.

This was such a simple and common-sense question that voters could easily answer and given record inflation, interest rates, and the aptly named “misery index” in 1980, voters sent Carter back to Georgia in a landslide Reagan victory.

This question is just as relevant today and should constantly be asked by Donald Trump or whoever becomes the ultimate GOP nominee. Like in 1980, it’s an easy question to ask and answer.

Start with economic issues. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gas is currently $3.84 per gallon compared to $2.62 four years ago, about a 27% increase. Four years ago, America was energy independent and now we are importing over 8 million barrels per day of petroleum. Better or worse than four years ago? Easy answer.

Another important staple, food, is the same with Food inflation currently 4.9% compared to 1.8% four years ago. That’s more than double in the past four years.

Shift from personal to national finances. In 2022, the national debt was $30.8 trillion. Four years ago, it was $21.4 trillion. In four short years it increased by almost $10 trillion. It took America 230 years to accumulate $10 trillion in debt, and only 4 years to add another $10 trillion to the debt.

Debt is definitely worse than four years ago. What about federal spending? The annual US budget deficit was $665 billion in 2017, rising to $2,772 in 2021. This is more than a four-fold increase in spending money we don’t have. Are Americans better or worse off because of their country sinking further into debt with increasing tax dollars needed to pay the growing interest on the debt?

From national to personal debt, what are mortgage rates compared to four years ago? The current 30-year fixed mortgage rate is 7.18 percent as of the end of last month. Four years ago, it was 3.58 percent, half of the current rate.

Before securing a mortgage, one must purchase a house. As per the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the average sales price of houses sold in the U.S. for quarter 2 in 2023 was $495,000. Four years ago, it was $377,000, more than a $100,000 difference. Are home buyers better or worse off than four years ago, especially with costlier mortgages?

When Americans don’t have money to pay for food and gasoline, on top of a mortgage or rent, they use their credit cards. U.S. credit card debt in the second quarter of 2023 was $1.03 trillion, an increase of about $150 billion compared to four years ago ($848 billion in the second quarter of 2019).

How will Americans pay off that debt? How will the government pay off its debt? Is it better now or four years ago?

Leave financial misery aside and now look at psycho-social misery. Start with drug overdose deaths. In 2017, there were 61,000 such deaths. Four years later in 2021, the most recent data available, there were 98,000 overdose deaths, almost a 50 percent increase.

Drugs are tied to illegal immigration. Pew Research found that there were 1.7 million encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021. Four years ago, this number was only 304,000. That’s more than a five-fold increase over the past four years.

What do Americans think? Is “better or worse” a question that will resonate with likely U.S. voters? Rasmussen Reports asked that question last month, finding that only 34% think the country is heading in the right direction compared to 61% that believe the nation is headed down the wrong track.

They asked a similar question a week ago, discovering that “52% of Likely U.S. voters think the U.S. economy has gotten worse since Biden became president.”

The “better off” question cuts to the chase as the above metrics impact the lives of most Americans. This simple and straightforward question leads to a vote decision – more of the same or returning to a better time fiscally and socially.

Republicans running at the local, state, and national level must ask this question, just as Ronald Reagan did in 1980. If voters answer thoughtfully, the Democrats should take the same pounding that Jimmy Carter received in his failed 1980 reelection bid.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, is a physician and writer.

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