Harold Meyerson has an informative and insightful long-form essay up on The American Prospect. It is, we think, an important analysis which should be widely read. The theme is “Straddling class divisions so last century. There’s a new base in town, and it includes a lot of people who used to be middle-class but aren’t anymore.” It is too long for a Talking Union post, so we present this excerpt.–Talking Union
This spring, a prominent Democratic pollster sent a memo to party leaders and Democratic elected officials advising them to speak and think differently. The nation’s economy had deteriorated so drastically, he cautioned, that they needed to abandon their references to the “middle class,” substituting for those hallowed words the phrase “working people.” “In today’s harsh economic reality,” he wrote, “many voters no longer identify as middle class.”
How many voters? In 2008, a Pew poll asked Americans to identify themselves by class. Fifty-three percent said they were middle-class; 25 percent said lower-class. When Pew asked the same question this January, it found that the number who’d called themselves middle-class had shrunk to 44 percent, while those who said they were of the lower class had grown from 25 percent to 40 percent.
Americans’ assessment of their place in the nation’s new economic order is depressingly accurate. Though most of the jobs lost in the 2007–2009 recession were in middle-income industries, the lion’s share of the jobs created in the half-decade since have been in such low-paying sectors as retail and restaurants. Median household income has declined in every year of the recovery. The share of the nation’s income going to wages and salaries, which for decades held steady at two-thirds, has in recent years descended to 58 percent—the lowest level since the government began its measurements.
The waning of America’s middle class presents a huge challenge to the nation’s oldest political party. The Democrats’ ability to improve the economic lives of most Americans has been their primary calling card to the nation’s voters ever since Franklin Roosevelt became president. Since the 1940s, however, the Democrats’ preferred method of helping working- and middle-class Americans has tilted more toward spurring economic growth than aggressive redistribution. So long as the growth in the nation’s economy registered in the pocketbooks of most Americans, there was little need to adopt policies that put a high priority on, say, redirecting profits into wages.