America’s income distribution is like a bottom-heavy hourglass tipped on its side - fat on the low-income end, growing on the high-income end and getting thinner and thinner in the middle. As we lose that bulge in the center - our middle class — people are panicking. It feels like we’re losing an American birthright.
The middle class may feel inherently American, but it wasn’t inevitable, or guaranteed to be permanent. Throughout history, income distributions have looked a lot more like toppled hourglasses than bell curves. And if it’s true that the middle class was a blip that’s over, then we are going to have to actively recreate it together.
Consider a baseball analogy. My daughter was born in Boston a year before the Red Sox broke their “curse" and won the first of three World Series titles. She’s only known them as “winners.” If the Red Sox started a multi-year losing streak now, she’d think somebody actively ruined something. Those who’ve spent a mature lifetime as Red Sox fans, however, might see it differently. From their perspective, new owners combined with new management and new philosophies to create some baseball magic - a magic that can’t last forever as it is.
The middle class was arguably a result of some magic, too - although a magic that arose from the tragedies of war and the Great Depression. First, there was manufacturing. Middle class America emerged in an economy that made and built things. In the US today, the cities with the highest percentage of middle-income families remain in the manufacturing belt, and the cities with the greatest middle-income losses are those with the greatest manufacturing losses, or with no manufacturing base.
Manufacturing didn’t do it alone, though. We also had massive government intervention. The Works Progress Administration, for example, employed 8.5 million people in the 1930s to build and repair the American infrastructure that helped fuel modern manufacturing and trade.
The Social Security Act of 1935 revolutionized income security - although it excluded people of color. Then, after World War II, the US invested $14 billion over about a decade in educating and training nearly eight million GIs. Those men went on to take advantage of favorable lending policies and tax credits to buy homes, have families and raise children in a quality, government-funded public education system.
All of these factors combined to help create our 20th Century middle class. But now it’s over. By most accounts, it started to fall apart in the 1970s. That era also began the roll back of New Deal policies, the decline of American manufacturing and private unions, and a hint of today’s “knowledge class,” who hold the degrees, income and wealth. We also have become increasingly diverse since then.
So, what do we do? Laissez faire policies and trickle down economics won’t work. Government investment helped reshape the hourglass; it will have to be part of the solution again. Two good places to start would be in employing people to rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges - as was supposed to be the case with stimulus money during the Great Recession - and in a national service bill that would engage young people in improving their communities and then support them like GIs.
We’ll also need new investment in American manufacturing. Yes, America probably won’t be the world’s producer, but we could be the world’s producer of specific things. Energy independence coupled with green technologies holds promise. America can get ahead of the curve on the technologies and on the supplies and assembly skills needed to adopt those technologies whole scale. Hyper-local manufacturing also has potential, taking advantage of 3-D printing and other small-scale manufacturing technologies to allow entire neighborhoods to become part of a production value chain.
Of course, there’s more. We need reinvestment in increasingly segregated urban public schools, and an affordable public higher education strategy. We also need a new generation of private unions focused on 21st Century work and the investments required to preserve middle income growth.
The American middle class was not a birthright. It took the Industrial Revolution, two world wars and arguably 30+ years of progressive fiscal policy to create it. Today, the end of that middle class is driving people to the polls, and to the political poles. To reshape the hourglass again, we’ll have to create complex magic in an act of collective will, not drive ourselves further apart.
Tiziana Dearing is an Associate Professor at Boston College School of Social Work. She is the former CEO of multiple anti-poverty organizations.