Having big cars, fancy TVs and trendy clothes never made us happy. It only drove us into debt — and increased our dependence on long work hours.

Since roughly the 1970s, Americans have been buying things madly, whether we could afford them or not. We were promised that a bigger car, a more trendy purse, or a flat-screen television would bring us happiness, and we’ve been acting accordingly. We were promised that an ever-growing economy would make us all rich. But while our gross domestic product increased more or less steadily from the 1970s until the onset of the current financial crisis, most of us did not see a rise in our standard of living or our wellbeing. Wages stagnated, while the costs of basic needs — like homes, medical care, food, and energy — climbed rapidly. Those in the top 20 percent increased their net worth by 80 percent over the last 25 years, while the bottom 40 percent actually lost ground.

Few families today can make it on a single wage-earner’s income, and a health problem or a job loss can send a middle-class family into poverty or even homelessness.

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