To rebuild middle class, give women and people of color opportunities

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If words are used too often, they start to lose their meaning. Try saying the phrase “deep discount” to yourself sixty times in a minute, for example, and it turns into a disjointed collection of consonants and syllables with no connection to any existing concept or experience. The technical term for this psychological experience is “semantic satiation,” and it was recently described in the sitcom Ted Lasso as the moment when “words become a sound.” 

One phrase that American politicians have nearly pushed to the point of semantic satiation is “the middle class.”

It’s a phrase with a specific economic meaning, and it seems simple enough to define: divide the economy into thirds based on income, and the center third that’s neither at the top or the bottom is the middle class.

But when politicians make their exhortations to the great American middle class, they’re typically trying to appeal to everyone — from minimum-wage workers in the service economy to McMansion-dwelling suburban families in the top 10%.

Most recently, the huge tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations that Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan pushed through in 2017 was wrongly pitched as a “middle class tax cut.” And all that elasticity applied to the term has done its work: Surveys have shown that nine out of ten Americans consider themselves to be middle class, which is of course mathematically impossible. 

In the latest episode of Pitchfork Economics, I interview New York Times tax and economics reporter Jim Tankersley about his new book “The Riches of This Land: The Untold True Story of America’s Middle Class.” It was important to immediately hammer down a definition of the middle class, so semantic satiation didn’t creep into the conversation.

Tankersley agrees that the middle class has been broadly defined to encompass “literally everyone” in the United States at one time or another.

For the purposes of his book, Tankersley says he uses “an economic security definition” to describe the middle class, by which he means “whether you can afford some basic tenets of what I think Americans have long come to believe are the things you need to be secure economically: To own a home, to have a car in the driveway, to send your kids to school, to retire safely and securely, and to have healthcare.”

“The Riches of This Land” explores the birth of the American middle class after World War II and the forces that have caused it to stagnate over the last few decades. But too many people use nostalgia for the middle class of the 1950s as a subtext for racist, sexist policies — for many Trump voters, “Make America Great Again,” for instance, almost certainly calls back to a whiter, more unequal time.

“When I was a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, you heard all these stories about the great middle class,” Tankersley said. “It was very sepia-toned, and I think there’s a real danger of falling into that trap of just comparing everything to the past. But the point of this book is to actually blow up some of the myths of that past.”

Tankersley simultaneously explodes those myths while also drawing some optimistic conclusions for the future of the middle class: “What history shows us is that the American economy grows and thrives when women and men of color and immigrants are given more opportunity — when we reduce discrimination and give them more pathways to contribute their talents to our economy.”

Those who think suburban white men have always been the core of America’s surging economy need to take a closer look at the historical record.

“Women surging into the workforce from 1950 to 1980 is a huge reason why we had such great economic growth and why so many families were able to get ahead,” Tankersley said. “And breaking down barriers for Black men and Black women absolutely contributed to this productivity boom that pulled people ahead. They get left out of that story.” 

“The civil rights story often just gets talked about like a social justice story, which of course it is,” Tankersley said, “but it’s a really important economic story. The Civil Rights Act is arguably the most important economic piece of legislation we’ve passed as a country in a century.

“We have this weird tic in America of separating issues of race and economics and social change when really they’re deeply entwined.”

It’s impossible to have social progress without economic progress, and vice versa.

This is a fact that America used to understand: In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. advocated raising the federal minimum wage to $2 per hour, which would be the equivalent of $15.23 per hour in 2020 dollars. 

The call for increased economic inclusion in “The Riches of This Land” arrive at a moment when the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 is still throwing hundreds of thousands of women out of the workforce and disproportionately harming people of color.

Nonwhite communities “entered the recession with less wealth and lower incomes then similarly positioned whites, so they didn’t really have a cushion to ride this out. And meanwhile, they are at higher risk of losing their jobs because they don’t work nearly as often in jobs where you can work from home.”

Tankersley is candid about the fact that “there isn’t a five-point plan that’s going to solve the problems that I’ve laid out” in “The Riches of This Land.” And the book arrives at a point when the economic gains that women have made over the last fifty years are imperiled, and some important civil rights protections have been rolled back or left incomplete. 

“Both the incredibly simple and incredibly difficult conclusion I’ve come to is the very best thing we could do for this economy is to root out systemic racism and sexism and abolish it,” Tankersley said. “If we could truly have a national commitment to finishing the work of civil rights, then we really could create an economy that works for everyone in the way we want it to.” 

And Tankersley does mean “works for everyone” in the broadest sense: he argues that we would all — white, Black, brown, male, female — do better if the systemic barriers that exclude people from the economy are removed.

“It worked in the fifties and sixties and seventies and it can work again now,” he said. “We have an economy primed with talented people who are being held back by the forces of discrimination. And by unleashing them, we can absolutely set things right again.”

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