Jack Cafferty at CNN this week asked viewers one of his seemingly routine questions. But the responses to: “How has definition of ‘middle-class American’ changed?” reveal a cataclysmic shift in our nation’s economic identity.
Gary from El Centro, Calif., summed up the vast majority of the nearly 200 responses when he replied:
You should ask this question of the three or four people in the country still remaining in the middle class.
The comments reflect more than the run-of-the-mill griping about taxes or middle-aged discontent. They demonstrate a visceral understanding of the deep forces underlying the dramatic change that in recent decades has eroded the solid financial footing of America’s working families—America’s middle class.
In short, the American public knows what most lawmakers in Washington and policymakers around the country have yet to figure out: The nation is losing its middle-class backbone and bifurcating into a have/have not country.
As Karen from Idaho Falls writes on Cafferty’s site:
In my world, there is no middle class–only the very rich, the rich, the poor, and the very poor. Most of us are hanging on to being “poor” by our fingernails and hoping that we won’t join the ever growing “very poor” class. Somewhere along the line, “middle class” disappeared.
The not-so-Great Recession is just the latest and loudest part of the long decline of the middle class. From the end of World War II to the early 1970s, wages grew along with productivity. But since then, wages have been stagnant or declining—while productivity skyrocketed. The decline in a family’s earning power was offset by the entrance of vast numbers of women in the labor market—and then by wage-earners holding multiple jobs. By the late 1990s, debt—from second mortgages or credit cards—kept the middle class afloat. And now what is revealed is a middle class held together by nothing more than string.
One of the most consequential but least recognized aspects of the current economic disaster is the growing length of time workers are without jobs. In December, the average jobless worker had been unemployed for 29.1 weeks. In contrast, when the recession began in 2007, the average unemployed person had been out of work for 16.5 weeks.
At Economix blog, Catherine Rampell points out in an tellingly titled post, “A Growing Underclass,” that the longer unemployed workers stay out of work, the less likely they may be to find work.
First, their skills may deteriorate or become obsolete—especially if they are in a dynamically changing industry like high technology.
Second, the stigma—both internal and external—of their unemployment grows. Studies have linked job loss to declines in self-worth and self-esteem, meaning these people will probably make less compelling job candidates.
So, even if there were jobs available—there are now more than six unemployed workers for every one job—getting one becomes harder and harder the longer you’re out of work. Jobs are so few, in fact, even a weekly columnist at Forbes had this to say:
For many, many Americans there are no jobs and few prospects. For them the Great Recession is not a cute aphorism but a major cataclysm.
Long-term joblessness is one more nail in the middle class coffin. As Working-Class Perspectives describes it:
Unlike in past business cycles, the middle class has not been able to recover so far, despite increases in productivity and stock prices. In “America Without a Middle Class,” Elizabeth Warren documents how the de facto unemployment rate, credit debt, “underwater” mortgages, increased use of food stamps, personal bankruptcies, and the loss of pensions and health care have all dramatically increased. Middle-class households have depleted their savings and are increasingly accruing debt to pay for college, health care, and other expenses.
Some experts believe that the decline in jobs will only continue. For example, Alexandra Levit predicts significant losses in a number of key industries between 2008 and 2018: semiconductor manufacturing (33.7 percent), apparel manufacturing (57 percent), newspaper publishers (24.8 percent)….Corporations are moving many of these jobs offshore or replacing them with technology rather than paying middle-class wages and benefits. The economists are right that new jobs are being created in place of these. But as Jack Metzgar discussed last week, most of the new jobs offer even lower wages and benefits and require less education.
Jobs are offshored while the jobs that remain in the United States are low-wage, with little affordable health care or retirement options. Meanwhile, the smooth of face and soft of hand financial wizards who turn their noses up at the industrial manufacturing sector fail to realize that when the United States loses its ability to make things, it also loses the research and development power that fueled the nation to greatness. And it loses something a lot more. Louis Uchitelle interviews Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) about the humiliation of building a new World Trade Center with no glass made in the United States:
“Imagine China,” he said in an interview, “building a huge structure intended to be an important national symbol and importing glass from the United States to build it. There is no way the Chinese would do that.”
And a low-wage job nation fuels income inequality. This from a stunning report by economist John Schmit at the Center for Economic and Policy Research:
From a peak just before the 1929 stock market crash through the early 1950s, wage and income inequality, broadly measured, were declining. From the early 1950s through the late 1970s, inequality was flat, or even falling slightly. Since the late 1970s, however, inequality has skyrocketed, climbing back to levels last seen in the 1920s. In 1979, for example, the top one percent of all U.S. taxpayers received about 8 percent of national income; by 2007, the top one percent received over 18 percent. If we include income from capital gains in the calculation, the increase in inequality is even sharper, with the top one percent capturing 10 percent of all income in 1979, but over 23 percent in 2007.
Back at Cafferty’s site, Chad from Los Angeles knows why:
The middle class has turned into the “peasant class.” We have been taken over by a few wealthy people who control our politicians and government. We have become an Aristocracy. Except the ones in control are not royalty, they are businessmen hiding behind a cloak of deception that is Corporate America.
In the short term, critical steps must be taken for immediate relief. The first is getting the Senate to extend unemployment insurance (UI) for the long-term unemployed. As usual, the House already has acted, extending UI in December, while senators dither. (Click here to tell your lawmakers it’s time to act.) Extending UI is part of the jobs initiative the AFL-CIO is pushing for immediate relief for jobless workers.
But before the current crisis fades, the nation must begin to reverse the more than 40-year trend in which the gap widens between rich and poor and the middle class falls out of the bottom.
Silas from Boston—a city not unfamiliar with fomenting revolutions—offers an intriguing insight:
We’ve allowed the “upper” class to become too big to fail. As a result, the middle class is an endangered species which has to bail out the class that got us into this mess to begin with. This is how the French Revolution started.
*This blog has been crossposted with permission from Campaign for America’s Future.
About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union—the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.