Saturday, September 22, 2012

Primer on America's Middle Class

I heard a primer on the term "middle class" on PRI's Market Place on Friday (9/20/2012). Reporter Krissy Clark interviewed Michael Lind, author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

America's original "middle class" corresponded to the "yeoman farmers" of English tradition.  With some property, some education, and a stake in their communities, they were the citizens who would vote, stand for elections, serve in juries, and make our Constitution work.  The United States cultivated this class by intentional policies starting with public education in the Northwest Ordinance (pre-Consitution), Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, and the Homestead Act -- long-considered but only enacted during the Civil War, in the absence of Senators who foresaw that a giveaway of our vast western land would dilute the power of the slaveowning aristocracy of the South.

According to Lind, the shift from farm to factory early in the 20th century brought new policies meant to support the new middle class consisting of blue collar workers and small-scale entrepeneurs.  These included Labor reforms, Social Security, government involvement in the home mortgage service, and the GI bill. 

But America no longer makes things, and corporations do the bulk of our farming.  Writes Clark,

We’ve got a void where the bulk of the middle class used to be and we haven't quite figured out how to fill it.  Both visions -- of education and entrepreneurialism -- can be inspiring, says Lind. The problem, he argues, is “the math simply does not work.”

And he means the math on both sides. On the one hand, only about 10 percent of Americans are self-employed. On the other hand,  70 percent don’t have college degrees. So, the bulk of Americans won't be owning small businesses or becoming white collar professionals with B.A.s anytime soon.  (from the story at

For the foreseeable future, the bulk of Americans will work in restaurants, retail, and hospitals. Pay in the service economy isn't enough to achieve the security and comfort central to our idea of "middle class."

Will we have that core of people with a stake in stability, an interest in government, an awareness of civic responsibility?  Will the vast majority of people feel they have no stake in the status quo, and no hope of climbing up to the plateau where the middle class used to be?  Hamilton, Washington, and their crowd feared that possibility in 1787; FDR feared in 1933 that America might go communist or fascist. 

Hearing Clark's story, I'm reminded that propping up the middle class is as traditionally American and conservative as any policy can be.  Republicans needn't get so prickly about "class warfare" when talk turns to income distribution, 1%, 47%, "Nickled and Dimed," etc. 

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