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Danger: Falling Middle Class

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Credit: Joe Kekeris
Credit: Joe Kekeris

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.

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Take Back Labor Day: Week 3 Roundup

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The fun continued unabated at, as we continued our Take Back Labor Day project for Week 3: September 15-19, 2008. Although we featured fewer posts this week than the previous two weeks, we still tackled many provocative issues that are frequently in the headlines.

On Monday, September 15, we kicked off the week with a post by Paul Bland of Public Justice. Bland, at the center of virtually all litigation to eliminate the scourge of mandatory arbitration in employment cases, tells us all about the pernicious practice that “require[s] current and prospective employees to sign away core constitutional rights as a condition of getting a job,” in the post “Labor in Exchange for One’s Rights.”

The next day, Tuesday, September 16, features Phil Duran of Outfront Minnesota. Duran, who represents transgender employees in discrimination cases, reminds us that not everyone is fully sharing in Labor Day’s promise when transgender employees lack full antidiscrimination protections under federal law, in the post “Sharing Labor Day with Transgender Workers.”

Wednesday, September 17 continued Week 3 with Jeff Blum of US Action. Blum tells us about US Action’s exciting new initiative to bring back some New Deal-era ideas, in the post, The Next New Deal. I think we’d all agree with him that:

We need to invest in our nation’s future and rebuild our middle class; creating good paying jobs instead of shipping them all overseas. No more race to the bottom, we need to begin our race to the top!

In our last post of the week, on Thursday, September 18, Tula Connell of the AFL-CIO, addresses issues straight out of the headlines:

Worsening unemployment. Millions of home foreclosures. Two-income households unable to support families. America’s workers are facing economic disasters so severe, even the national media is paying attention.

Connell’s post, Working Harder for Less Mocks the American Dream, reminds us that the Employee Free Choice Act is a way that we can correct the existing imbalance between workers and their employers which is one of the causes of the financial inequities dominating the headlines.

Although we’re inching closer to the end of the month, we will still be going strong next week, with posts from notables such as: Ilona Turner, Cyrus Mehri, Jen Nedeau, Richard Freeman, and Charlotte Fishman. (See About Our Bloggers to learn more about our rock-star lineup for next week.) Stay tuned every weekday in September to hear about what our experts will be talking about next — you can be certain it’s being ripped from the headlines!

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Working Harder for Less Mocks the American Dream

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Worsening unemployment. Millions of home foreclosures. Two-income households unable to support families. America’s workers are facing economic disasters so severe, even the national media is paying attention.

But the current crisis has long roots. America’s working families have been suffering through what is now a generation-long stagnation of wages and rising economic insecurity.

Steps must be taken immediately to shore up our flagging economy and provide much-needed assistance to working families. The AFL-CIO union movement supports an immediate moratorium on home foreclosures and the passage of a second fiscal stimulus package, including extension of unemployment insurance and federal aid to states and cities to prevent further cutbacks of vital public services.

Yet short-term measures will not be enough.

We must restore the balance between workers and their employers to ensure that workers can bargain fairly for an equitable share of our nation’s prosperity. Working families have been left behind over the past three decades, as virtually all income gains have gone to the wealthiest Americans.

Between the mid-1940s and mid-1970s, inflation-adjusted wages doubled for most U.S. workers, but between 1979 and 2007, they grew only 7 percent. Since 1979, productivity, or output per hour, has grown 70 percent—10 times as fast as real wages.

As a result, income and wealth are more unequally distributed in the United States than in any other developed country and are more unequal today than at any time since the 1920s. Even more alarming, American intergenerational economic mobility is falling and is already lower than in many European countries.

In a House subcommittee hearing on the economy last week, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) summed it up this way:

In short, many Americans are working harder for less. Less income, less job security, less health and pension coverage, less time at home, and less opportunity. Left unchecked, this trend will strike at the very core of the American dream.

Economic Policy Institute (EPI) economist Jared Bernstein describes it this way:

The difficulties facing American workers predated the recession. There may be no more telling statistic…than the fact that the real wage for the median male was lower in 2007 than in 1973.

For the last few decades, [workers] have been losing employer-provided health coverage, or paying more out-of-pocket for premiums, health services, or medications. Their pensions are less secure, and have flipped from majority guaranteed benefit to guaranteed contribution, shifting the risk of an adequate retirement benefit from their employer to themselves and their family.

Correcting this long-term imbalance will require multiple strategies. We need policies that ensure a just global economy. We need a government that provides quality services, adequate public investment and fair taxes. And we need to ensure that when workers seek to join together to improve their wages and access to health care and retirement security, they can do so without employer harassment and intimidation.

In 2007, full-time union workers were paid $863 in median weekly income, compared with $663 for their nonunion counterparts. In March 2007, 78 percent of union workers in the private sector had jobs with employer-provided health insurance, compared with only 49 percent of nonunion workers. Union workers also are more likely to have retirement and short-term disability benefits.

America’s workers know union membership helped build the nation’s middle class. Some 60 million workers say they would join a union if they could. But the nation’s labor laws are broken, letting greedy employers harass and intimidate employees who seek to form a union. In the post-World War II years, our nation’s middle class mushroomed because workers from the factory lines to the office steno pool could join together and form unions, enabling them to negotiate for better wages, affordable health care and retirement security. Their purchasing power helped strengthen communities, and their solidarity pushed through such vital policies as job safety standards and Medicare that benefited all working Americans.

But some 92 percent of private-sector employers, when faced with employees who want to join together in a union, force employees to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda, and 75 percent hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns. When America’s workers are unable to win a voice at work, the American Dream becomes harder and harder to reach.

That’s why passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is a top priority for the union movement. The Employee Free Choice Act is a crucial step in moving our nation toward a just economy. It would level the workplace playing field by enabling employees to sign up for a union through a majority verification (card-check) process or labor board election, whichever they choose. It also would provide for mediation and arbitration if management and the union can’t work out a contract in 90 days. Because even after workers successfully form a union, in one-third of the instances, employers refuse to negotiate a contract.

Chris Williams, who teaches introductory physics at Pace University in the New York City area, has experienced this firsthand. As an “adjunct faculty” member, Williams couldn’t survive on his wages from Pace, where the average pay for teaching a 15-week, three-credit course is just $2,500. So while a tenured professor might earn $100,000 annually, an adjunct in the next classroom with the same qualifications would earn only $15,000 for the equivalent of a full-time workload.

Williams and other adjuncts joined the New York State United Teachers/AFT (NYSUT/AFT) in December 2003. But, once at the bargaining table, Pace dragged its heels, and today, the adjuncts still have no contract. Williams, a strong supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act, puts it this way:

Anything that can speed that process has to be good for workers. It’s clear that people need someone to represent them collectively. At the moment, the balance of power is almost completely with the employers. It’s long overdue that workers shift the power a little bit in our favor.

The health of the U.S. economy will turn on whether we let corporations get away with paying poverty wages to those responsible for teaching those who, ultimately, will lead our country. And so will the future of our nation.

(Show your support for the Employee Free Choice Act by signing a petition for its passage here. We plan to present 1 million signatures supporting the Employee Free Choice Act to the next Congress and president.)

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while working her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (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—Tula started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), Tula now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

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