Reviving the middle class. It’s the catch phrase of this presidential election campaign and whoever the voters believe can deliver for the middle class will be our next president. Whoever can bottle up his or her secret elixir for reviving the middle class in America and then sell it to the masses will become our next president. What no one is talking about is who exactly comprises of the middle class? All the candidates assume that the voters know who the middle class are, but do they really? The face of the middle class has changed drastically since The Great Recession. Many former middle class pursuits and creature comforts now belong to the upper-classes or at least upper-middle class. Things like private education, summer camps, playing varsity sports, all require extra money that the middle class no longer have and perhaps will not regain in the near future. All the extra disposable income the middle class have are now going towards maintaining the rising cost of living but no upward adjustment in wages, not enough to keep up with inflation anyway. And what’s not mentioned yet by any of the candidates is growing the middle class, not growing the income of the current middle class but growing the number of people who belong to the middle class, lifting people who are in the lower classes into the middle class and out of the grind and humiliation of poverty. And I don’t mean throwing money at the problem by creating more government funded programs in the form of direct handouts, that hasn’t worked in the long term but providing the lower income people the tools to move into the middle class, such as education, training and life skills, topics such as delaying parenthood until one is financially established, avoiding single parent household situations and making smart, long term financial decisions that would not only move them into the middle class but that their children stay in the middle class as well.
The next thing is of course who the Republicans and Democrats consider to be middle class and what their views of the middle class are and whether or not they want to grow the middle class. The GOP no longer recognizes what the real middle class is, they think middle class is middle white America and people who subscribe to and identify with those values and that excludes a lot of people. The Democrats need the votes of the lower income voters so their incentive to campaign to bring more people into the middle class isn’t quite there. People who already belong in the middle class depending on if they are at the higher end of the middle income scale or lower end, will more or less determine who they vote for.
How these candidates campaign for the middle class will be based on their definition of the middle class. Is it how much money you have in the bank? Your annual income? Your occupation or profession? College degree or not? Does someone without a college degree but earn upwards of $50,000 per year which is more than what some with a college degree earn does that make one middle class? Your values and tastes, such as attending the theater or the ballet or going to watch a dirt bike contest with your free time? Where you shop (Walmart or Target)? Do you eat organic food or do you eat processed junk food? Where do you go and what do you do on the weekends, ferrying your kids around to various sports games or watching football at home? What about church attendance? And finally a thorny and controversial one – parenting style. Do middle class parents parent their children differently and do they impart different values than their working class counterparts? According to Robert Putnam’s new book: ‘Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis’, the main barrier to social mobility is no longer race but social class: “Poor parenting is thus a barrier to social mobility, and is becoming more so as the world grows more complex and the rewards for superior cognitive skills increase.” He goes on to say that “Educated parents engage in a non-stop Socratic dialogue with their children, helping them to make up their own minds about right and wrong, true and false, wise and foolish. This is exhausting, so it helps to have a reliable spouse with whom to share the burden, not to mention cleaners, nannies and cash for trips to the theatre.” He points up that up to “1970s there were practically no class differences in the amount of time that parents spent talking, reading and playing with toddlers. Now the children of college-educated parents receive 50% more of what Mr Putnam calls “Goodnight Moon” time (after a popular book for infants).” The traditional authoritative style of parenting no longer works in the 21st century as cognitive and analytical skills are more important in the workforce than following orders.
The second major factor in social mobility is 2 parent families versus single parent households. The breakdown of the traditional family has been detrimental to social mobility. After Robert Putnam’s extensive research and interviews his conclusion was that a child’s 8th grade test scores do not determine whether that child graduates from college or not, but the social background of that child will determine if that child completes university or not. It’s a sad and sobering book on the decline of social mobility and family. A problem this complex and layered has no obvious solutions, Putnam didn’t point fingers at anyone or offer a silver bullet solution to this complex problem. It requires a multi-pronged approach, the first and most obvious is to discourage having children out of wedlock and having children too early, and those that do have children out of wedlock and are in single parent households, to teach them good parenting skills. Children after all, model what their parents do, interventions from schools, counselors and social services can have an impact, but the responsibility to produce productive children ultimately lie with the parents, it is not the obligation of society to raise its delinquent children. There are anti-poverty programs that can assist with parents that need help but ultimately they need to do the work.
In New Britain, Connecticut a new anti-poverty program that was included with the Obamacare legislation called ‘Child First’, several states have chosen to try out this program, which is a home visit program for vulnerable parents with young children. Social workers and nurses visit homes of underprivileged children and teach them practical parenting skills. How to soothe a baby, how to get the baby to sleep, and most importantly never ever harm the baby out of frustration by teaching parents coping skills and basic parenting skills. Being a lone parent, in financial distress with insecure food, housing, child care and employment, combine that with a fussy baby and sleep deprivation is a situation ripe for disaster. The conservatives would interject at this point that these people shouldn’t have children to begin with and since they brought this on themselves, they shouldn’t expect the government or anyone but their own families to help them. To that I have this reply, yes, poor people shouldn’t be procreating, in fact many people should not be procreating at all not just the poor, but lots of things happen that shouldn’t be happening. Global warming, melting of Arctic Ice, greenhouse gases, environmental destruction due to oil drilling, a big hole in the ozone layer, GMO foods, the Monsanto Corporation, scores of species of animals going extinct everyday due to human poaching and loss of habitat, destruction of the Amazon rainforest, all of these are manmade, done by rich people, rich corporations, done in the name of capitalism, where is outcry from conservatives on this? So, to the social conservatives out there, who deny poor people access to birth control and adequate health care, citing religion and God, at the same time shaming people who seek abortions and shaming the poor for being poor and being a leech on the welfare system, shaming them for applying for food stamps and cash aid to feed their children to survive, where is your Christian spirit? I don’t recall Jesus shaming the poor in the Bible, in fact he did the opposite, he reached out to people who were poor and marginalized and shunned by society. Jesus, however, did openly condemn hypocrites and people who drone on and on about God and morality but do not practice what they preach.
Even if we remove religion and basic human compassion and decency from this conversation, research and study after study has shown that providing assistance to children of poverty and early intervention will prevent future social ills and further drain on resources for when those children grow up. Providing food assistance and secure housing will keep them in school and to be able to pay attention and focus on their studies. Again, the problem of poverty and its solutions are complex and difficult, there’s no silver bullet. Many things have been tried to varying degrees of success, but everyone needs food on their table and a roof over their heads, that is the most basic of human needs, and there is no reason why the richest nation on earth cannot provide that for its citizens. Having said that, people need to want to improve their lives on their own, one can lead a horse to water but one can’t make it drink, the government can provide all the programs and assistance out there at the disposable of the underprivileged but if they don’t make good use of it besides the immediate cash and food assistance but don’t make long term plans to improve their lot, there isn’t much the government or charities can do for them.
I would implore each of the presidential candidates to go one step further, to find ways to lift those families currently living in poverty or working classes into the middle class by providing a road map to get there. It is always up to the individual to follow the road map, but the way our society is structured now, there is no road map, only vicious cycles of poverty, lack and need.
Finally, to all the social conservatives, who claim they so love this country, living on welfare and food stamps is no life. It is a life of insecurity, worry, fear and shame. Giving the poor a choice between gainful employment and a life on welfare, most will choose gainful employment.