A strong middle class is, for many people, central to the American idea. There are other core values too, of course—freedom, political representation, individualism, etc.—but an economy in which families can feel economic security, live comfortably, and build up wealth is definitely on the list.
But that’s not the economy America has today. The middle class is getting smaller by the year: According to Pew, the percent of adults in solidly middle-income households has fallen to 50 percent in 2015, from 61 percent in 1951. And belonging to the American middle class doesn’t guarantee financial security either: 44 percent of Americans making between $40,000 and $100,000 say they can’t come up with $400 in the event of an emergency without borrowing money. For black and Hispanic middle-class families, that figure is 58 percent, compared with 40 percent for whites.
This isn’t how it has to be, said María Teresa Kumar, the founding president and CEO of Voto Latino, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. The strong middle class of the 20th century, she argued, “was a choice. It was a policy choice; it was an American choice.”
Kumar argued that government policies following the two world wars—the G.I. Bill, investments in infrastructure and education, the establishment of Social Security—made the middle class. It’s true, she noted, that “Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and African Americans were excluded from that,” but the fact that the government did it, and that it worked, stands as proof of what is possible—and what kind of investment is required. “A lot of the issues that I hear about today about where are we are going this century, we’ve actually grappled with them last century—we doubled down with less knowledge, and less resources.”
The question now, Kumar said, is whether the country will pull together and do that for a new generation of Americans—one, she emphasized, that is less white. How the country answers that question will reveal much about its character, and will determine the future of millions.