As usual, the truth lies somewhere between these two poles of thought.
Financially, most Americans are doing well -- indeed, they say this about themselves in most surveys -- but there are a lot of economic problems in our economy that still need fixing.
Even in the midst of the housing market's downturn, most Americans own their own homes -- nearly 70 percent -- more than ever before in our history. Fifty percent own them outright. Moreover, despite the decline in housing values in some regions, most Americans have seen the value of their homes climb to record highs.Owing to 401(k)s, IRAs and other tax-free savings plans, more than half of all Americans own stocks, a historic level of corporate ownership in equities that cuts across most income levels.
The U.S. Census Bureau came out with its annual figures last week that reported two other positive economic trends: The poverty rate fell last year for the first time in 10 years and median household income, when adjusted for inflation, increased for the second consecutive year.
While median income -- meaning, half make more and half make less -- rose to $48,201, it still has not climbed back to its pre-recession high of 1999 just before the tech market tanked.
Many tend to think of the poverty rate as a static pool of people, when in reality it is more fluid than that, with people rising out of poverty or falling into it due to family breakups, divorce, job losses or some other economic catastrophe.
In this case, the Census Bureau analysis said the rise in median income was largely due to the jump in the number of people who obtained full-time jobs. It further noted that the poorest households showed the largest gain in incomes.
The chief reason: job creation. Unemployment has fallen over the past seven years and is down to 4.6 percent of the eligible workforce. More Americans are working now than at any other time in our history. A majority of the states have jobless rates of less than 3 percent to 4 percent.
Note to policymakers: The best way to reduce poverty is to expand the economy and create more jobs.
Critics point to the wide disparity of incomes in our country -- or what they call "income inequality." The Washington Post, in a fit of class envy, reported, "The share of income going to the 5 percent of households with the highest incomes has never been greater."