Christopher Jencks makes a characteristically wise point (after displaying a graph that shows that real poverty has declined a lot since 1959, and a bit since 2009):
The equation of “bad” with “worse” is so tight in American political discourse that when I tell my friends or my students that “there is still a lot of poverty, but less than there used to be,” they have trouble remembering both halves of the sentence. Some remember that there is still a lot of poverty. Others remember that there is less than there used to be. Few remember both.
I observe the same phenomenon constantly. The problem, for example, with our students’ civic knowledge is not that it has declined. Scores on civics tests have been remarkably stable over a long period. It’s just that civic knowledge is (and used to be) too low. The same is true of voter turnout: quite flat since the 1970s, but at a problematically low level. I offer additional examples from social policy in “why do we feel compelled to argue from decline?” It seems that you cannot get attention for a problem unless you pose it as a recent and alarming deterioration from a previously superior state. That is an obstacle to taking our most stubborn problems seriously.