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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Will the Real Middle Class Please Stand Up?

By Ruy Teixeira
Let me begin on a note of agreement with Kim, Solomon and Kessler (KSK): the Democrats have a very large problem with middle-class voters, particularly white middle-class voters. And crafting a potent economic message is key to reaching these voters. A better national security message and/or reassuring these voters on values issue will not be enough to enlist a critical mass of these voters in the Democratic camp.
They are also right that getting pummeled among white middle-class voters is a problem of large magnitude. As they correctly note, white middle-class (defined as those with between $30,000 and $75,000 in household income) voters are about a third (35 percent) of voters, according to the 2004 NEP exit poll. Note, however, that if we restrict our attention to “prime-age” voters (aged 25-59) or prime-age married voters in the white middle class, as they seem to urge us to do at one point in their analysis, the magnitude of the problem is reduced substantially (to 24 percent and 16 percent of the voters, respectively). Perhaps they need to decide which white middle-class voters they are really concerned with. A majority of white middle-class voters (54 percent) are either outside of the prime-age range or are not married. Does that make them not “real” white middle-class voters?
A further note: their statistics about the relatively high median incomes of prime-age households, prime-age married households and prime-age married households with two earners are obviously about all the households with such characteristics, not just those that fit their definition of middle class ($30,000-$75,000 in income). Citing these data in the context of a discussion about the middle class is therefore not strictly pertinent and actually somewhat misleading.
But these are relatively minor objections to their analysis. I am much more concerned with the following three questions about their argument.

  1. Do KSK correctly characterize the economic views of the white middle class?
  2. Do KSK correctly formulate an economic message that will resonate with these voters?
  3. Do KSK offer a set of policy prescriptions that make sense in light of the economic views of the white middle class and the economic message that is needed to reach them?

Do KSK Correctly Characterize the Economic Views of the White Middle Class?
KSK argue that the economic outlook of the white middle class is optimistic, not pessimistic. To support this claim, they cite some data showing that Americans, when it comes to their personal economic situation and future prospects, have an optimistic outlook.
I might quibble with some of the data they selected to bolster their case. But the point is nevertheless a reasonable one. In fact, I make the same point, along with my co-authors, Larry Mishel and David Kusnet, in our forthcoming Economic Policy Institute report, “Americans Discuss Economics: Bridging the Gap Between What Elites Say and What Everyday Americans Believe”. The report reviews public opinion data from the last decade and a half, including our own survey in the spring of 2006 specifically on the public’s economic views (the survey was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Economic Resiliency Group and will henceforth be referred to as the ERG survey). These data generally support what KSK say: the public does tend to view their own economic situation optimistically.
I might also quibble that the data they cite are not really about the white middle class but rather about the public in general. But that is less of a problem than it might seem. The views of white middle-class Americans typically do not deviate much from the views of the American public as a whole, so lacking crosstabular data, using the overall survey figure is a reasonable approximation. In fact, I will use the same strategy below, citing overall survey figures when I don’t have specific figures for the white middle class.
So my quarrel is not with the claim that the white middle class harbors considerable optimism about their personal economic situation. They do tend to see themselves getting by fairly well, given the economic circumstances they have to contend with, and do believe they will be able to better their economic situation over time.
But what of the economic circumstances they do have to contend with? Here is where my quarrel lies. It seems willfully obtuse of KSK to ignore the abundant evidence that Americans are quite pessimistic about the economic circumstances they have to deal with and how these circumstances make their struggle to get ahead a great deal harder, and their progress slower, than they would like.
Consider just a few recent examples (many earlier examples may be found in my forthcoming EPI report, referenced above). In the ERG survey, we asked respondents to choose between two statements characterizing today’s economy:

  1. Most people today face increasing uncertainty about employment, with stagnant incomes, paying more for health care, taxes, and retirement, while those at the top have booming incomes and lower taxes.
  2. Our economy faces ups and downs, but most people can expect to better themselves, see rising incomes, find good jobs and provide economic security for their families. The American dream is very much alive.

By 2:1 (64-32), respondents selected the first statement about increasing uncertainty as coming closer to their views. And among white middle class respondents, these pessimistic sentiments were actually slightly stronger (68-30).
Part of what drives these pessimistic sentiments is the sense that the social contract that used to underlie the U.S. economy has broken down, making it harder to attain a stable, economically secure middle-class life. For example, a June, 2006 Penn Schoen Berland poll for the Aspen Institute found 90 percent agreeing that “25 years ago, if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would be able to have a solid middle class life”, compared to only 49 percent who agreed this characterization was true today. Ninety percent also agreed that retirement today is far less secure than it used to be, because you need to fund retirement yourself, through IRAs and 401(k)s. In contrast, 82 percent agreed that “25 years ago you could retire in dignity and comfort because most people had company pensions”. And perhaps most startling, 80 percent agreed that “Today, with the costs of housing, healthcare, education and self-financed retirement, a middle class life has become unaffordable for most people”.
Similar findings come from an August, 2006 Pew Research Center survey, released this Labor Day. In that survey, they asked respondents to compare how the average working person was faring today as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago in a number of categories. On job security, 62 percent said there was less security, compared to 11 percent who said there was more and 24 percent who thought it was about the same. On how hard one has to work to earn a decent living, 59 percent said harder, 13 percent said not as hard and 26 percent said about as hard. Concerning on-the-job stress, the analogous figures were 69 more/6 less/22 same; concerning employer loyalty to employees, the figures were 56 less/6 more/33 same; concerning retirement benefits, the figures were 51 worse/16 better/27 same; and concerning employee benefits such as health insurance and vacations, the figures were 44 worse/24 better/26 same.
Clearly, there are widely-shared pessimistic sentiments about how well the economy is working for the typical American. Indeed, there is a sense that important aspects of our economy that used to serve the middle class well are now broken. It would be as silly for Democrats to ignore these data as it would be for them to ignore the data about Americans’ personal optimism. And it would be even goofier to argue that somehow only the optimistic data are “real” data and the pessimistic data are artifacts of question wording, survey timing and so on (or vice-versa).
No, I am afraid we shall have to accept the fact that Americans, including white middle-class Americans, are optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. That is, they are optimistic about their personal economic situation and believe they will be able to get ahead, even as they pessimistically recognize that the workings of today’s economy make their struggle, and that of people like them, much more difficult than it should be. The dual nature of this economic viewpoint may be summarized as follows.

  1. When it comes to their own individual and family situations, most people say that they are succeeding (and expect their kids to succeed), thanks to their hard work and personal sacrifice in the face of great obstacles. This allows them to tell a story where they and their families are the heroes and where their difficulties redound to their credit.
  2. But, when they talk about how the economy is actually performing for “people like me” or for the entire nation or for the next generation as a whole, people are more forthright and forthcoming about the challenges that they themselves face. Now, they are not pitying themselves; they are expressing concern for their children, their friends, their neighbors, their co-workers, and their fellow citizens.

This dual viewpoint is nicely illustrated by the relationship between two questions asked on the ERG survey. The first was given above: when respondents were asked whether a pessimistic or optimistic statement about how the economy was working was closer to their view; they chose the pessimistic statement by 64-32. The other asked whether respondents thought they would attain the American Dream within their lifetime or had already attained it; 69 percent optimistically said they would attain the Dream or had already attained. But this group that thought they had reached, or would reach, the Dream, nevertheless endorsed the pessimistic statement (“Most people today face increasing uncertainty about employment, with stagnant incomes, paying more for health care, taxes, and retirement, while those at the top have booming incomes and lower taxes.”) about today’s economy by 59-38!
What explains this seeming paradox? Part of the answer surely lies in the optimistic, aspirational nature of Americans as a people, who see themselves as being able to move ahead even when overall economic circumstances are difficult. But another part of the answer lies in the fact that most people, in fact, tend to gain more income as they get older and climb the “age-earnings profile”, even when the economy as a whole is performing poorly (see Larry Mishel’s contribution over at the The American Prospect version of this debate for a lucid discussion of this phenomenon). In other words, even though workers now “start lower and go up slower” than they did in the past (part of what colors people’s jaundiced view of today’s economy), they nevertheless do go up over time and this reality helps explain why they evaluate their personal trend line positively.
So it’s not “either-or”, it’s “both-and”. On to the next question.
Do KSK Correctly Formulate an Economic Message That Will Resonate With These Voters?
Stripped down to its essentials, KSK are clearly recommending that Democrats stop blathering so much about economic security and focus instead on economic opportunity. Arguments like this contribute to my occasional sense that Democrats can’t walk down the street and chew gum at the same time.
In light of the data reviewed above, it seems much more sensible to argue that Democrats should do both. Americans clearly want both more opportunity and more security–so why talk about just one of these? As KSK correctly point out, an economic message that boils down to “your life sucks, and here’s how we’re going to cushion your fall” is a loser, precisely because Americans do not see themselves that way and believe in their ability to get ahead. But equally a message that ignores the many ways in which Americans believe today’s economy promotes insecurity and constrains their ability to get ahead and that simply says “here are some tax breaks-go get ’em tiger!” will also seem out of touch.
In fact, Democrats should not only talk about both economic opportunity and security, they should link them together. The phrase Jacob Hacker and I use in a forthcoming American Prospect article is “providing security to expand opportunity”. Here’s a summary of our approach:

Add on top of the big causes of long-term insecurity your typical family’s struggle to cover steadily rising health care costs, get or safeguard health insurance coverage, pay for decent childcare while both parents are working and simultaneously put away enough savings in their 401(k) plans (if a family has one) for a comfortable retirement and you have a recipe for running in place, rather than moving ahead. Change becomes a foe, rather than a friend, despite the typical American’s strong belief in upward mobility.
Democrats’ job is to offer the struggling but hard-working and optimistic American family a way out. The general problem of economic security can be addressed by some sort of universal insurance program that, in exchange for a small premium, protects families against catastrophic declines in their economic situation (whether that be from suddenly-falling income or rising expenses). There is probably also a role here for personal accounts that would help families manage their expenses before they reached meltdown levels. Such accounts would be less regressive than those proposed by Bush and would include small annual (and on the birth of a child) progressive contributions from the government.
The details of a universal insurance approach, of course, can be complicated and one of the present authors has provided some. But for purposes of thinking about the Democrats’ message, the details are far less important than the general approach.
That is also true of the rest of the Democrats’ economic agenda. Efforts to increase health coverage (perhaps by expanding Medicare, which most Americans know and like) and contain health care costs (including prescription drugs), to improve the quality and availability of childcare, to defend (Social Security) and extend (a universal 401(k)) existing retirement benefits, and to make college and specialized training available to all are the subjects of countless and competing policy prescriptions. But the important thing is that these policies-whatever the details-should be put in the context of helping Americans get ahead. These are measures to allow the typical American family to raise its head from the day-to-day struggle to get by and concentrate on its most heartfelt wish: to better oneself, to move up in the world, to even become wealthy.

Sounds like a winner to me.
Do KSK Offer a Set of Policy Prescriptions That Make Sense in Light of the Economic Views of These Voters and the Economic Message That Is Needed to Reach Them?
Obviously, I am skeptical. There is certainly a place for some of the targeted tax breaks they advocate, and they are correct that if you want to reach the white middle class, you must, logically, advocate policies that would benefit them. Defending transfer payments and other programs that directly assist the poor, whatever their considerable virtues, will not be enough to convince middle-class voters that Democrats embrace their economic interests and are concerned about their struggle to get ahead.
But the targeted tax breaks they advocate do not seem particularly responsive to the magnitude of the structural economic problems middle-class families currently have to negotiate–problems which don’t just exist in the minds of progressive economists but are clearly recognized by these families themselves. These tax breaks would likely be underwhelming both in practice and in the perceptions of the very constituency they are designed to reach.
A better approach is the kind of universal programs suggested above. Universal programs have succeeded in the past in both substantially improving the country for everyone and convincing white middle-class voters that their economic aspirations are well-served by identifying with the Democratic Party. And, as John Halpin and I argue in our paper, “The Politics of Definition“, this approach would help build up a “common good” identity for the party that would be congenial to both white middle-class voters and the minority/labor/low-income/professional base of the Party.
In conclusion, I commend KSK for forcefully raising the importance of optimism and economic opportunity to the Democratic economic message. But their approach is too one-sided. Time for Democrats, including KSK, to give the lie to the idea they can’t walk down the street and chew gum at the same time. Walking and chewing: try it, you’ll like it!

2 comments on “Will the Real Middle Class Please Stand Up?

  1. danconley on

    While I’m sympathetic with Third Way’s diagnosis of the middle class problem, I think their prescription is wildly off base.
    If I’m a voter and I’m presented with two economic plans both built around lower taxes, which party will I trust to deliver those cuts — the party of Bill Clinton’s phantom middle class tax cut or the party of the Reagan and Bush tax cuts?
    Furthermore, the GOP has a compelling argument against these targeted tax breaks — would you rather vote for the Democrats and have a more complicated tax form where they tell you how to spend your money or would you rather vote Republican, get lower taxes and decide for yourself where to spend it?
    Like it or not, we are the party of government. We’re never going to change that fact. Democrats will start winning back the Middle Class when we demonstrate that our party can make government work — and make it more cost effective — while the Republicans may cut your taxes but the government they’ll leave you with will be a sick joke, one that can’t win wars, can’t protect American citizens on our own soil and can’t even pay the bills without going hat in hand to the Chinese.
    The road to Democratic victory is going to be paved with accountability. Our party has to be the one that stops accepting failure. We’re not going to put up with failing schools anymore. We’re not going to pass on debt to our children and grandchildren. We’re not going to accept a health care system that bankrupts our government and our companies.
    We lose the Middle Class because we take their money and don’t deliver enough in return. They trust our goals and share our values. But they’re sick and tired of paying taxes for government that doesn’t work. And it’s time Democrats stood up and said enough is enough. We’re going to make government work and we’re not making any more excuses. And if we fail, don’t re-elect us. The buck stops here.

  2. Will Neuhauser on

    Thanks for cutting through the false choices.
    It has seemed to me that certain programs ostensibly for the poor actually benefit the middle class taxpayer, notably higher minimum wage and basic universal healthcare.
    Paying a “living wage” means fewer people would need poverty assistance programs, thus diminishing the tax burden. Universal healthcare provides economic security but also reduces ER and other costs that are either paid for by government or work their way back into higher premiums.


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