The Political and Economic Assault on the Middle Class


Did you hear the happy news? Dollar General stores will hire 6,000 people this year. Yes America, hiring is back!

Actually, curb the enthusiasm. This isn't the stuff that robust middle class recoveries are made of. According to, the Dollar General chain pays its assistant managers $9.22 an hour and store managers $11.51 an hour. Cashiers and sales associates make barely over minimum wage. We're talking about thousands of new jobs between $20,000 and $30,000 a year.

It's a sign of the times. Low-wage jobs, including everything from retail sales associates to home health aides, are the bread and butter of our employment boom, while middle income jobs are on the decline.

Among the top ten occupations projected to have the largest numerical growth in the next decade, seven pay median wages under $30,000 a year, including food preparers and servers earning $16,000, and retail and home care workers who make $20,000. Home aides and retail workers are expected to add about 1.4 million positions this decade while middle-class manufacturing jobs are projected to lose more than a million jobs.

This is not the kind of job swap you want to see in a world-leading economy. Peter Creticos, president and executive director for the Institute for Work and the Economy, calls it the "down waging" of American jobs, and he fears it has and will continue to hurt the economy, blunt innovation and impoverish society at large.

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"We're not growing the middle, so people on the bottom have no where to go and we're putting downward pressure on good skilled jobs for those in the middle," he said. The individuals holding jobs paying near-poverty wages will be able to find work, he continued, but making ends meet will be a struggle for a growing segment of the working population. Nearly a third of working families are struggling to buy groceries and pay utility bills, according to a recent report by The Working Poor Families Project. Talk about making work not pay.

Low-wage jobs have always been part of the economic landscape, the same way every pyramid has a base. But in the last 30 years, wages at the bottom of the pyramid have barely budged but low wage jobs have grown. The Great Recession exacerbated this trend by creating a glut of needy workers who would accept even less money to get off unemployment, putting more downward pressure on lower wages.

How is the media handling this? Rather than ask how we can rescue tens of millions of underpaid workers, today's headlines pretend the real problem is greedy public sector workers. We are angry at teachers, government workers and autoworkers for the audacity of negotiating livable wages. (Remember the vitriol that spilled out against average, middle class autoworkers when the government was contemplating bailing out the auto industry? Even bankers didn't feel such rage from the public.) It's open season on teachers and government employees, especially those who are unionized and have been able to ensure a fair wage and benefits and actually live the American dream.

If you think the last three decades have been bad for unions, wait another three months. Across the country governors are trying to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights. John Kasich, the new Republican governor of Ohio, will try to take away a teacher's right to strike. "They've got good jobs, they've got high pay, they get good benefits, a great retirement. What are they striking for?" he said, as reported by the New York Times. To which, one must respond: What's wrong with fighting for high pay, good benefits and a great retirement?

Perhaps Dollar General's 6,000 new hires can take solace in a thin silver lining. At least they know politicians won't use their $20,000 salaries as political piñatas.