We Need to Change How We Talk About the Middle Class Crisis

This post is part of our forum on Don Peck's September story, "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?"It is always tricky talking about the middle class, particularly when the conversation is among affluent Americans.   While teaching at Columbia about a decade ago, I asked the students what the median household income in the U.S., the lowest guess was $80,000, and the highest, $200,000: the correct answer, at the time, was $50,000.  

Now I live in Philadelphia's Main Line, surrounded by millionaires masquerading as the suburban middle class.  (The number of millionaires per capita in Main Line is among the highest in the country.) Every day, I commute between the Main Line and West Philadelphia, and I am amazed by how most people are blind to the Dickensian inequality that exists within just 2 or 3 square miles. In and around West Philadelphia, one finds the second hungriest congressional district in the nation, a school system where 7 out of 10 children live at or below the poverty level, and neighborhoods that have the highest murder and incarceration rates in the nation, and where young black men have a higher mortality rate than soldiers on active military duty. The elite nearby have many causes: they drive Priuses, raise money for a new art museum, and compost to save the planet. Yet they seem unfazed by the suffering next door.

The only way I see out of this crisis is to tap into the wells of American compassion that we witness in the wake of disasters in faraway lands. Why couldn't we lead a public health campaign about the risks of the dangerous level of inequality (not poverty, inequality: the language is key)?  Would Americans really object to a negative income tax to ensure our children had food in their bellies, healthy teeth, a warm, safe place to live--and better life opportunities as a result?  With millions of Americans trying to figure out a way to send their children to college, is it unimaginable to sell the American people on the idea of a 1 percent payroll tax to fund public education directly (rather than using tax dollars to support a college loan industry)?  We are the only developed nation in the world that can't figure out a way to train our young people through both a publicly subsidized system of higher education for vocational training AND four year colleges--why can't that change?  

I am struck by how much more easily many other societies see that inequality, beyond a certain point, can become structural, limiting opportunity.  And I'm struck by how much more willing many other societies are to sacrifice for the next generation (forgive me Jim for invoking the international context so casually here). We need a different story about where we are going and what it means to be an American.