The middle class, the bedrock on which American society is supposedly built, is a hollow concept. Politicians pander to it and tell us their policies will benefit it. We imbue it with our fondest nostalgic notions and consider it the embodiment of the American dream. Most of us consider ourselves members of it, but rarely do we actually attempt to define what that means.
Sixty-nine percent of Americans have less than $1000 in savings. Let that sink in, then understand that 34% have nothing saved, up from 28% in 2015. Only a quarter have more than $10,000. We like to think of ourselves as middle class, but we're poor. This fact may hurt our pride, but the sooner we accept the truth, the sooner we can do something about it. It is time to stop voting for policies that favor the rich in the hopes that we will someday join their ranks. While you're busy hoping, working hard or buying lottery tickets or however you think you're going to bootstrap yourself into the one percent, those policies are screwing you over. Decades of growing inequality prove that “trickle down” does not work. If anything, the money is trickling up - just last year, $4 trillion entered the pockets of the richest 1% of Americans from the pockets of the 99%. Almost half of that came from the poorest 90% - meaning an average household lost $17,000 to the elites. Still think you’re going to buck the trend and bootstrap yourself? Good luck.
Trump constantly trumpets the gains of the stock market since his inauguration as an indicator that he is saving the US economy. His base points to these gains as proof that they were right. But the average American does not own stock. Anywhere. A rise in the stock market is purely academic for them. It may benefit the company that employs them, if they are lucky enough to be employed, but those stock market gains are not passed down to the American worker. Indeed, since the 2008 recession, only wealthy Americans have seen their net worth surpass pre-recession levels. “Upper-income” families now have seven times the median wealth of “middle-income” families and 75 (!) times the wealth of “lower-income” families - up from 3.5 and 28 in 1983, respectively [statistics explained here]. Taxpayers take on all the risk - on the hook for bailouts when too-big-to-fail banks tank the economy - and receive none of the benefits of stock market bubbles. For his part, Trump had better hope he's out of office by the time this bubble pops. He's hitched his reputation to the climbing Dow and it's not going to be pretty if (when) the market craters.
Meanwhile, unemployment is supposedly at a 16-year low, a statistic that leaves out the big fat caveat lurking within all jobs numbers - workers aren't counted as unemployed if they've timed out of collecting unemployment, if they've given up looking for a job, if they work more than one hour a week, if they never had a job that qualifies them for unemployment, and so on. The real numbers are much higher. The rise of the “gig economy” means even the employed are in a precarious position, often working as freelancers or “independent contractors” with no benefits, no retirement account, and no unemployment benefits should they lose their jobs. Others are kept just a few hours shy of full-time to avoid becoming eligible for benefits. There is always another wannabe worker just out of college with student loans to pay willing to do their job for less. The gig economy represents a race to the bottom. The unions, gutted under the Reagan administration, never recovered their power and fewer Americans than ever belong to them - just 10.7% of workers in 2016 were union members, compared to 20.1% in 1983, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking membership. While corruption was a fact of life in some unions, they did provide a net benefit to the working class, allowing millions to live comfortable middle-class lives and provide for their families.
Now, when workers try to unionize, their bosses waste no time in firing them, or even closing down their business. Wal-Mart's history of anti-union activity is well-known, but it isn't just the country's largest employer cracking down on worker organizing. Last week, billionaire and bison-meat entrepreneur (seriously) Joe Ricketts closed down Gothamist and DNAinfo - two New-York-centric news outlets that have filled the void in local coverage left by shrinking city desks at papers like the Times and the Post - a week after employees voted to unionize. Ricketts had founded DNAinfo in 2009, but he bought Gothamist less than a year ago, merging it with DNAinfo in a bid to make the money-hemorrhaging but beloved site profitable. The union issued a statement reporting that, in the tradition of Wal-Mart and all plutocratic corporations dating back to the robber barons, “threats were made” to workers during the organizing drive. The message is clear - under neoliberal capitalism, you can have a job or you can have the freedom to organize, but you can’t have both. Employers no longer need to send in the modern equivalent of the Pinkertons to break up strikes, because employees are too beaten-down to put up much of a fight. They are merely sent out the door to meet what is supposed to be a thriving job market and try to get themselves rehired - to compete against the throngs of overqualified college graduates willing to work for even less. “Real” wages - adjusted for inflation - have decreased 3.7% in the lowest tenth of the job market since 2000, only increasing noticeably near the top, where they climbed 9.7%. Average real hourly wages (averaging all income levels) have increased a little over a dollar since 1964 while rent and other cost-of-living expenses have steadily risen. Automation was supposed to give the worker more leisure time, shorten the workweek, and increase quality of life. Instead, we’re working longer and harder for less.
Denial is the American pastime, and our widespread conviction that we belong to the middle class is just another way we play that game. CNBC offered some rosy statistics earlier this year using a definition of “middle class” that includes two-thirds to double the national median, then warped even those numbers to give some completely unrealistic statistics. According to them, a single person in New York needs to make just $27,720 to be considered middle class - never mind that this person could not afford a Manhattan studio apartment and would be left with just $26 per month to spend on non-rent expenses in an average Brooklyn studio. The high end of middle class, represented in that article as $83,160, is more realistic, leaving the earner with several thousand dollars extra per month, but renting an apartment generally requires proof one is making 40 times the rent in income, meaning most places are off-limits to our hypothetical middle class New Yorker.
On the other end of the middle-class delusion are the rich people who feel self-conscious about their riches and affect middle-classness to quell their discomfort over what writer Rachel Sherman calls the “stigma of wealth." They black out the price tags on the furniture they have delivered to hide their consumption from domestics and other “help” (as if the presence of “help” didn’t already betray an income level in the one percent). They try to raise their children in a bubble, insulating them from the advantages of affluence by creating an artificially idealized middle-class environment (usually replicating their own rose-tinged childhood memories, transplanted to an area with higher property values). The idea is that by coopting middle-class values, they can deflect the intrinsic loathing the less-fortunate feel for the one percent, becoming honorary “salt of the earth” types. It’s OK to be rich as long as you don’t act like it. Sherman rightfully takes them to task for impeding a reevaluation of income inequality - while society is letting the “moral” uber-rich off the hook - because at least they’re not like those hedge fund douchebags flaunting their wealth all over the place - it is not reconsidering the economic model that allows them to get so filthy rich in the first place while others must scrape by on next to nothing.
No one likes to feel like a failure, and Americans, as citizens of the Land of Opportunity, hate to admit they’ve failed to bootstrap themselves into a comfortably middle-class existence. Particularly if they grew up privileged, or otherwise had help from parents or relatives, struggling young adults are less likely than their foreign counterparts to admit poverty or need. They spend outside their means, charging up credit cards to keep up appearances even as their bank accounts scrape bottom and checks start bouncing. A recent survey cited in Forbes suggests that less than half of Americans can even claim $1000 to their name. I find that difficult to believe, given all the houses in this country that obviously have people living in them, but the survey only covered respondents’ bank accounts, not their property. By any measure, we are struggling, and we are told we are alone in struggling. We must be makers, not takers. The economy is improving - just look at that stock market! - and so it’s our fault if we’re still out of work, or in a job we hate that doesn’t pay enough, or living with our parents or a pack of roommates because we can’t afford our own place.
So we tell ourselves money isn’t that important, that we’ve achieved the American dream even if we’re living in our parents’ basement or sleeping on a friend’s couch or working a dead-end job. Forty-six percent of Americans surveyed by Pew say they are “on their way” to achieving the American dream, while only 17% believe it is out of reach for their family. There is a thin line between hope and delusion, and we are crossing it en masse.
Trump’s tax plan, sadly, does not really address these problems. More than half of every tax dollar now goes to fund the bloated military-industrial complex, as our wars (declared and otherwise) continue to rage around the world. The social safety net is in shreds, Medicare and Social Security are chronically underfunded, and affordable housing is a pipe dream for most. The Trump tax plan repeals state and local income tax deductions, which benefited residents of high-tax states like New York and California. It cuts the corporate tax from 35 to 20 percent, a reduction which is largely academic for America’s wealthiest corporations, which employ platoons of lawyers to avoid paying any taxes whatsoever. The top one percent of earners would receive 22 percent of the benefit next year, increasing to half the benefit by 2027, according to the Tax Policy Center. Any benefits to the middle class, however it is defined, would evaporate within five years - by 2023, families earning between $20,000 and $40,000 as well as $200,000 and $500,000 would actually see their taxes increase. The plan would increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years, and you can bet when it comes time to draw up the next budget it won’t be the Pentagon feeling the bite.
As the middle class becomes extinct, it more closely resembles the perfect political constituency - it’s easy to serve a voting bloc that doesn’t exist. Politicians can trumpet the gains their policies have made for the middle class, and no one can argue with them. America needs to reverse its race to the bottom, stop hemorrhaging cash on endless and unwinnable foreign wars, and start rebuilding its economic base if we want to survive. The people who populate our Congress and White House have voted almost exclusively against our best interests. The time has come to replace them. It’s election day. Change starts with showing up.