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Inequality, despair, division: Biden faces a deeply troubled America

As President Biden begins his term in office today, he'll be tasked with leading a country beset with deep, long-term problems.

Why it matters: Though the pandemic has made them worse, existential challenges around inequality, social alienation and political division in the U.S. were in place well before SARS-CoV-2 arrived on American shores. The country's future will depend in large part on whether the choices made over the next four years can flatten the curve of American decline.

If the American Dream has a meaning, it's this: Children have a fair opportunity to surpass their parents economically.

  • But every generation since the Silents — Americans born between 1928 and 1945, which includes Bidenhas seen social mobility dwindle, a trend that accelerated in recent years.
  • For Americans from the middle percentile of income born in the 1980s, less than half were able to outearn their parents at the age of 30, thanks to sluggish wage growth, a sharp increase in the costs of necessary services like health and education, and the increasing concentration of income gains among the upper class.
  • The U.S. labor market has fractured in half, with the college-educated largely thriving and those without a degree increasingly left behind, a trend intensified by the effects of automation and globalization.

The decline of social mobility and the rise of inequality — the U.S. has the highest level of income inequality among all G7 countries — are just two measures of a country that is deeply struggling.

What's happening: The pandemic — which has now taken the lives of more than 400,000 Americans, with more dying in the time it takes you to read this article — will worsen nearly every one of these trends.

Yes, but: The American story is far from over, and in the midst of some of our darkest days, that story isn't all bad.

  • There's a reasonable case to be made that the corner has been turned on climate change, with the world likely to avoid the worst projected effects of global warming even before Biden took office with a mandate to act.
  • If America is a less economically equal country than it was decades ago, it's a largely freer one for women, people of color and LGBTQ people, though significant progress still needs to be made.

The bottom line: "Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now," Biden said in his inaugural address.

  • Biden was referring to the American people, but the words are just as true for the 46th president as well, as he takes up the task of binding up the nation's now decades-old wounds.

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