The middle class is on the verge of extinction in America and people are mad, frustrated, and feeling helpless to do anything about it. I totally understand it, but it will not change until we change. And I’m not talking about the got-damm budget deficit.
Wages for the middle class has stagnated to such a degree that many of the families formerly considered middle class have fallen and are falling out of the category daily. And as much as I hate to say this, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.
That’s primarily because during stretches of adversity, the natural inclination is to look anywhere for blame. With the current and ongoing economic turbulence the country is experiencing (and make no mistake, it is happening whether you’ve become desensitized to it or not), there has been a lot of both going around. Blame the bankers, the politicians, or even emerging economies on the other side of the planet — you’re bound to be accurate, at least some of the time.
The economy of the United States is immensely complex, and there are so many detailed factors that go into making society function at such a basic level that there is not any single big business or individual that can be rightfully criticized. There has been a systematic rollback of protections and regulations put in place after the Great Depression; and we have let political interests, and biased “news” organizations manipulate the general public to such an extent that a large portion of the electorate actually believes that an economy the size of the U.S. can be controlled like a checkbook.
In a peculiar way, economics and politics are similar. While there may be satisfaction, and perhaps even some degree of factual accuracy in pointing out the shortcomings or faults of the establishment, Congress, the President, or large institutions, we individuals should also first take a look at our own behavior as well. No matter what we do, we’re still having an effect on the systems around us, whether in a passive or active role.
Much like we are all afforded a voice in the political process (admittedly it has been greatly diminished by Citizens United and gerrymandering, but that’s for another day), individuals have the ability to make their intentions known in an economic sense as well. As consumers, individuals within the economy can use the free market as their soapbox, and use purchasing power as a dynamic force for change. Ever since the onset of George W. Bush’s Great Recession, I’ve been trying my best to educate as many or as few people as I can with this column. But each of us have a formalized, authoritative form of communication…our money.
Each dollar we spend is a vote of sorts in favor of a specific enterprise, or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Each dollar signals that there is demand for certain goods or services, so our economy will seek to produce a supply of those goods and services to match that demand. In response, the economy will produce more of the particular goods individuals create demand for, and how people choose to spend their money influences the economy from the very micro level to the very macro. That’s capitalism at its core. What isn’t capitalism at its core is allowing 158 wealthy families dictate what laws, tax advantages and corporate subsidies in the hundreds of billions of dollars gain advantage over all the rest of us—again, Citizens United is the culprit un-democratizing America and it’s essentially putting 158 families in the role of ruling families…a monarchy of 158 if you will…you Republican voters might think you’re getting your way, but these 158 families don’t give a horse’s ass about you either, they just keep you brainwashed as they steal your money and your vote.
An example of this idea in action is what is currently happening to fast food giant McDonald’s. The company has been under fire from critics for decades about its business practices and the quality of its product, and it appears that consumers may finally be putting their foot down by patronizing the restaurants’ rivals or simply choosing not to eat their food at all.
But it’s those same forces that allowed McDonald’s and other large-yet-maligned businesses, like Wal-Mart, to grow into the behemoths they are today. Though most people agree that the practices and products these businesses offer leave a lot to be desired, the benefits of patronizing them have outweighed the negative repercussions — in the form of cheaper goods and services, as well as jobs for millions.
Nobody likes to be told they are responsible for a negative outcome, especially Americans, but the American public has had a role in developing the economic troubles of the past few decades, particularly because we have had the opportunity to influence it the whole time. At the core of the issue, in politics, anyway, is voting. But it’s also the choices we make as consumers. Politics and economic issues are tightly interwoven, and much of our policy is dictated by those looking to influence the economy. As the main economic force in the country for the past fifty or sixty years, the middle class has had the most sway in dictating which way the tides will change.
In many cases, there are nothing but bad or worse choices that we are faced with as consumers and voters. Part of the issue is that people aren’t willing to put in the extra effort — whether that be shopping at an independent, small business as opposed to a big box store as a consumer, or supporting and voting for a third-party candidate at the ballot box. It’s easier to stick with what we know, or what’s most convenient. But by doing so, we’re seeing the effects cascade down into a series of economic and social hardships that may have otherwise been averted by making smarter decisions.
As the median wage earners and largest population segment in the country, the middle class acts as a buffer of sorts between the rich and the poor. It’s hard to quantify just how much purchasing and political power the middle class does possess, but it’s been within the relatively large numbers of the middle class that have traditionally been the target area for most American earners. The thing is, if it weren’t for that economic buffer, there would be little stopping the poor and disadvantaged from engaging in massive protests and acts of civil unrest, all in an effort to bring more awareness to their strife, or to actually gain some relief.
One way we are seeing this barrier weakening is with the widening gulf in income equality. While there may be things that many people disagree with when it came to the Occupy movement, the protest’s main focus was to call attention to increasing inequality, and they have plenty of evidence to back them up. The middle class has fallen further behind than at any point in the past 30 years, and increasing cuts to the social safety net have made things even more difficult for families on the ropes.
Despite all of the middle and lower class’ troubles, it’s the promise of a better future attained through hard work and education that keeps people more or less in line. It’s the classic ‘carrot and stick’ approach.
For most of the population, earning and maintaining a middle-class lifestyle is what we have traditionally called the ‘American dream’. While there are others who strive for enormous amounts of financial wealth or power, the idea of owning a home, providing a comfortable life for their families and indulging in a handful of simple pleasures is more than enough to keep most people in line.
Another part of the American ethos is a sense of responsibility, and that is where the notion of using your economic and political influence, as an individual, comes into play. Each and every day, every individual has the opportunity to make choices and influence the state of the world, on a micro level, at least. By choosing to put in some extra effort or work — by changing your shopping habits, switching your diet, or any other number of things — you’re casting a vote in favor of switching up the status quo. Instead of sitting by, without taking our own behaviors into account, why not take responsibility and use what power we do possess to try and catalyze the change we’d like to see?
Most people may feel powerless, but the truth is that Americans of all socio-economic distinctions hold the power to change things. It’s simply a matter of recognizing it, and making the necessary adjustments to our behavior. The American public has become exceptional at voicing their grievances, but absolutely dreadful at following through on taking action to enact any kind of change.
There’s two primary ways to do that, with your wallet, and with your votes. Making the effort to use those effectively could make the difference that the middle and lower classes have been hoping for.
The Republican House of Representatives is in utter chaos and the vast majority of the inattentive American public shrugs it off like it’s just a bad day at the office. It’s not. They’re gambling with your money and your children and their children’s future, whether it comes to the crumbling infrastructure that may collapse under your vehicle tomorrow, or the clean air and water that your children will curse you for allowing them to be ruined under your watch.
By believing that everything was outside of our control — and therefore assuming that someone else will take responsibility to deal with any issues we’re facing — we’ve stripped ourselves of our own power. This, in effect, is how the American middle class has dug its own grave.
The right to vote — just like your right to make decisions regarding where you spend your money — gives each and every individual a fractional bit of influence on the system at large. Voting is a formalized, authoritative form of communication. A vote is an answer to a question — in many ways, it’s an instruction. When we vote for the president, the government is asking “Who should we put in charge of the country?” Whatever the people choose is the person who gets put in charge.
The economic wounds of the financial crisis and Great Recession are evidently deeper than anyone has realized, despite the fact that nearly every economic indicator is showing significant progress. Case in point: the shrinking middle class. We’ve been hearing about how the middle class has been in trouble for years now, and while there’s been plenty of evidence to back those claims up, new data is showing just how deep and widespread the damage is.
Pew Charitable Trusts, through its Stateline blog, has found that the middle class has shrunk in every single state between the years of 2000 and 2013. Naturally, some states have been hit harder than others, but this new insight does indicate that there was truly nowhere to hide from the economic downturn that began in late 2008. The fall in middle class ranks was also accompanied by drops in median income in most states as well.
“Analysis shows that in all 50 states, the percentage of “middle-class” households — those making between 67% and 200% of the state’s median income — shrunk between 2000 and 2013,” Stateline writes. “The change occurred even as the median income in most states declined, when adjusted for inflation. In most states, the growing percentage of households paying 30% (the federal standard for housing affordability) or more of their income on housing illustrates that it is increasingly difficult for many American families to make ends meet.”
It’s definitely not a pretty picture.
There’s only one way that the U.S. can leave a better tomorrow for our children and their children. Get off your ass and do something to change it. Educate yourself to the actual details, whether it’s about the economy or politics. We are not only being sold a shit pie, we are passively shoveling it into our pieholes.
It’s on you to change it.
Harvey A. Gold