The path to a strong middle class moves forward, not backward
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To be elected president, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE rode a wave of anger and disillusionment among white non-college voters who are bitterly disappointed over their recent economic experiences and hopeless about their futures.

Trump exploited their anger brilliantly, feeding them false hopes that he would restore their lost jobs in manufacturing and mining, thus resurrecting the pathways that once enabled Americans with only a high school education to join the middle class.


But this plan will fail. The new digital technologies and market forces that enable goods to be manufactured much more cheaply by machines or foreign workers cannot and should not be reversed; any remaining manufacturing jobs will be far fewer in number than before and require much more technical skill than most workers in these industries ever had.   


My own research for the Progressive Policy Institute on this problem indicates some key factors that limit the ability of many workers and their families to achieve middle-class incomes, which I believe requires an average of about $50,000 per year and is achieved by only about 70 percent of Americans in any year.

For one thing, too few Americans have the education or training needed to reach the middle class. It is extremely difficult for workers without some kind of postsecondary credential to reach this income level, and only about half of American workers have one. Even among those who do, too many have credentials (like associate degrees in liberal studies) that employers do not value.  

Employers also play an important role in providing worker access to good–paying jobs. By various measures, the overall numbers of middle-wage jobs in the U.S. have been shrinking for decades. But, outside of production and clerical work, middle-wage jobs are growing somewhat as a share of the total.

This “new middle” — including jobs like health technician, machinist or retail manager — typically requires workers to have specific occupational credentials, which so many workers also lack. Indeed, employers often report great difficulty filling such jobs. 

But, at the same time, too many employers compete on the basis of minimizing their labor costs — often called the ”low road” in compensation policy — rather than higher worker quality and performance (the “high road”) to profitability. It would therefore be helpful if employers created more well-paying jobs and took concrete steps like apprenticeships to help workers fill them.

Other factors contribute to the difficulties workers have reaching the middle class. For instance, for the many families in which no worker has at least a bachelor’s degree, two workers are usually needed for household income to reach middle class status. But too many U.S. families have only one working adult.

This problem has been exacerbated by the recent exodus of so many prime-age men from the workforce — including those with opioid use and dependency. Moreover, too many families reside in economically-depressed regions of the country, where access to jobs and skill-building are limited as well.

What policies could help expand access to the middle class for workers and their families? To start with, we need a stronger system of educational pathways, below the bachelor-degree level, to good jobs, plus robust new efforts to engage employers in creating good jobs and training workers to fill them. 

For instance, the nation should embrace a goal of adding a specific number of apprenticeships — say one million — and help employers (with tax credits and technical assistance) do so. State or federal funds could reward employers more generally who embrace “high road” employment practices like substantial on the-job training or profit-sharing.

Another part of an effort to strengthen sub-college-degree middle class pathways should focus on community colleges. For instance, a new federal “Race to the Top” fund for states could carefully target resources to colleges that expand their occupational and workforce training programs and provide the counseling and support students need to succeed there.

To receive such funding, states could also be required to reward colleges that produce stronger post-graduation earnings among their students, especially those from disadvantaged families or regions.

Federal or state funding to support economic stabilization or redevelopment in declining regions could help residents there gain more access to skill-training and jobs. Very importantly, state efforts to “make work pay” and draw more workers back to the labor market — through more tax credits to low-income workers, opioid prevention and treatment and moderate minimum wage increases — would help as well.  

Confronting this range of challenges will neither be easy nor cheap. It will require experimentation by states of a range of policies and evaluation of what really works.

Yet opportunities to join the middle class and experience the American Dream must be restored to the many millions of Americans who have lost it. What is required is not demagogic promises or nostalgia for a lost past, but rather a realistic effort to identify the real problems and try solutions that might actually work.     

Harry J. Holzer is the LaFarge SJ professor of public policy at Georgetown University and a former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.