This is mostly political symbolism. The idea that anyone can “save” the middle class assumes that it’s in danger of disappearing, which it isn’t, and that presidents possess sufficient powers to resurrect it, which they don’t. Still, the symbolism is potent because most Americans equate the middle class with the kind of society we are and ought to be. It is a society where hard work and personal responsibility are rewarded – where “getting ahead” is expected; where economic security and social stability are enjoyed; and where privilege is minimized.
The appeal of these beliefs – across many economic, regional, religious and ethnic boundaries – is a great unifying force. It explains why most Americans identify themselves as “middle class.” A recent survey from the Pew Research Center asked people to state their social class. Only 7 percent of Americans called themselves “lower class,” although the government’s poverty rate is 15 percent. People don’t define themselves out of the mainstream.
The same holds at the income spectrum’s opposite end. Despite decades of rising inequality, only 2 percent put themselves in the “upper class.” Many Americans with incomes of $200,000, $300,000 or more refuse to count themselves as rich. They minimize their wealth or privilege and emphasize the middle-class need to strive. Nine of 10 Americans locate themselves somewhere in the middle class. In the Pew survey: 15 percent in the upper middle class; 49 percent in the middle class; and 25 percent in the lower middle class.
Not without reason, the middle class is now routinely described as “besieged,” “battered” and “beleaguered.” In the Pew survey, nearly three-quarters of Americans say it’s harder to advance now than a decade ago.
Obama and Romney can’t do much to aid the middle class. They face a dilemma. The middle class can’t regain its self-confidence and financial health without a strong economic recovery. But the economy can’t recover strongly without a financially healthy middle class, which provides most consumer spending. Not surprisingly, the economic expansion is glacial. Household debt is reduced gradually. Wealth is slowly rebuilt through higher saving and stock prices – and the hope that home values will follow.
There is also a larger conflict. Sooner or later, broad-based tax increases will be needed to reduce budget deficits. How large depends on how much federal spending is cut. This creates an unavoidable conflict between workers and retirees, because workers are the biggest taxpayers and retirees are the biggest beneficiaries of federal spending. Which middle class deserves support? Cut Social Security and Medicare and help workers. Raise taxes and help retirees.
For now, what’s telling is the resilience of middle-class norms. About 11 million homes are “underwater,” reports CoreLogic: Their mortgages exceed their values. Still, most owners make monthly payments even though defaulting might be advantageous. Similarly, long-term unemployed workers send out hundreds of resumes despite repeated disappointment.
Personal responsibility and a strong work ethic still matter and suggest a durable middle class. It will survive today’s economic setbacks – and political pandering.
Washington Post Writers Group