Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Shortchanged Middle Class

Robert Reich has two excellent blog posts up today, one on the erosion of the economic middle and another on the gutting of the social safety net. Both of them hinge on the condition of the economy for ordinary working people.
But maybe Hank Paulson had something more subtle in mind when he spoke of a $64,000 question. Maybe, just maybe, he was taking note of the fact that median annual household incomes have dropped, in real terms, from about $46,000 in the year 2000 to $45,000 today. Yet if American households had been sharing in the growing economy the Administration is so eager to tout, median household income today would be well on the way to $64,000.
This is something that is only going to grow - the shrinking wallets of the bulk of Americans in the middle.

There is not a lot of sympathy for those at the very margins at a cultural or policy level. Those are the "losers," imagined to be young, black, urban, female, fecund and feckless. That the majority of them are white Christian southern females who are likely to vote Republican (see Ezra Klein's fascinating The Rise of the Republicrats in the most recent American Prospect for a look at this interesting demographic) only shows how far welfare reform is from reality. Regardless, those who have to beg are regarded as failures and deserving of their fate. If that means being thrown from support after five years in a wretched labor market, tough shit. On a personal level, the recipients tend to think of themselves, or of their family members/friends, as eminently deserving, people a little down on their luck, or who have put in so they should now get back.

As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, the pivot point in both understanding and modifying wide-spread views on whether this or that social program should be supported is the concept of being deserving of the benefit. Social Security works because the culture as a whole agrees that it is given to those who deserve it. Putting it into a frame of class conflict just won't work in the US because we as a society see ourselves as "on the way to wealth," i.e., we always imagine ourselves to be among the comfortably rich at some point. Hence the success of the anti-estate tax rhetoric.

What is scaring the middle class more than anything is the knowledge that they are becoming poor, and risk becoming undeserving, part of the losers. They know it isn't their fault on some level (though, actually, it is as they have consistently voted in governments whose economic policies are diametrically opposed to equitable wealth distribution - see the above Klien article), and that they are losing economic clout and social standing even as they deserve to do better.

So, for a Democratic politics to seize the popular imagination, Democrats have to craft a rhetoric of just desserts, that the bulk of the public is entitled not to "hand outs" but to a reasonable return on their investment - universal health insurance, clean environment, earnings in keeping with productivity, sustainable economic growth, access to quality education and services to make it easier to raise kids when both are parents employed outside the home.


No comments: