The Forgotten Class: Upsizing the American Family

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Whatever happened to the “small Coke”?

“Yes, I’ll have a cheese Whopper, extra onions…”

“Extra onions?”

“Yes. I’m single.”

“No kidding.”

“…small fries, and a small Coke.”

Remember those days? Sad to say, there is no more small Coke, or small fries for that matter. “Medium” is the new “small.” The old small no longer exists. Unfortunately, this is where the analogy I’m about to make breaks down.

The candidates, especially Barack Obama who considers himself their champion, have been talking a lot about the “Middle Class,” offering tax and other programs to save them. Promises, promises, saying whatever it takes to get elected without regard to costs or other practical considerations. “Blah, blah, blah.” (So I’m becoming a tad cynical. It’s been a long, long campaign, and I don’t like anyone who’s running. Every four years I ask myself the same question, “Is this the best we can do?”)

Here’s the thing about the Middle Class. It’s not real, and it’s not relevant. If you define the middle using too broad a spectrum of household income, let’s say $25,000 to $125,000, you’ve included families at the low end who face a very different set of challenges than those at the upper end of that range. Household definition is also a factor. Do you honestly think a single parent family of three making $40,000 a year has anything in common with a single person household making the same salary? Of course not. And there are other factors that need to be taken into account related to education and training, profession and industry affiliation, location, age and, unfortunately, ethnicity and gender.

Even more important, and the reason for the title of this simple observation, the very fact of a Middle Class suggests that there is a lower one where the working poor and others who aren’t part of the economy live. What about these people whose problems have been largely omitted from the rhetoric of this campaign? It’s a particularly striking oversight given that the leading candidate is a person of color. Could be, come to think of it, a reason why he’s leading, that he’s managed to distance himself and his campaign from the poverty and constant recession we never think or do enough about. Not enough voters. Not enough contributors.

This is a Middle Class election. Tax the higher income families. Forget about the lower income families. The Middle Class is the only class that counts.

There’s the inference that somehow we’re all in the Middle Class or higher, that there is no “lower class.” Even the term is disparaging. But who are either of the candidates kidding? Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. Think of the productivity we’re missing from our economy, the social costs in terms of quality of life not realized, the real costs of the services we actually do provide, and the potential increased levels of consumption that would benefit all of us if only we could help this other, invisible segment of our people have its shot at the American dream.

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