Middle-class Americans still aren’t being helped by Washington

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent April 27, 2013

The 2012 presidential campaign was fought over one big issue: which candidate and which party would be better equipped to help and protect struggling middle-class Americans. Since then, political leaders in Washington have done nothing to make good on their promises.

The latest economic figures confirm what has been a reality now for almost the entirety of President Obama’s tenure in the White House. The economy is continuing to recover, but not rapidly enough to make a major dent in an unemployment rate that remains stubbornly high, or to provide either genuine security or a sense of confidence about the future for millions of American families.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

The government reported Friday that gross domestic product rose just 2.5 percent in the first quarter. That was a little better than the final months of 2012 but hardly reason for optimism. Cuts in government spending, particularly declines in defense spending, were a major contributor to the weak growth report.

Across-the-board spending cuts imposed when Washington politicians could not find a more sensible way to resolve their differences over the budget, along with the ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are adding downward pressure on an economy that needs the opposite. The private sector is doing little to offset the impact of those cuts. Wage growth remains mostly stagnant.

Guns and immigration dominate the debate in Washington — issues that are worthy of attention, but neither of which speaks directly to the issues that remain at the top of most Americans’ list of concerns, which include jobs, the economy and economic security. The political system appears frozen when it comes to dealing with those issues.

At the end of this past week, Congress found a way around the automatic spending cuts to prevent the furloughs of air traffic controllers, but the amount of money involved was a pittance in the overall scheme of the sequester balance sheet or the economy.

The coming fight over the budget and the debt ceiling seems at best a do-no-harm approach and at worst a further setback to turning around the effects of the 2008 recession and to the longer-term pressures on middle-class families.

Problems get more acute

Almost 21 years ago, Bill Clinton accepted the Democratic presidential nomination “in the name of the hardworking Americans who make up the forgotten middle class” and pledged they would be “forgotten no more.” Today the problems of those Americans are even more acute.

The latest issue of National Journal addresses this problem with refreshing directness in a cover story entitled “No Shelter From the Storm.” The magazine offers an examination of the current state of the middle class, a discouraging report that goes over familiar ground.

It chronicles the downward pressure on middle-class families over the past decade, from declining income and net worth to a falloff in the percentage of people in the labor force as discouraged workers give up on their job prospects. In reality, this is a much longer-term problem that has been with us for decades. The only recent time when there was much relief from these trends was during the economic boom of the late 1990s.

Downward pressures on middle-class Americans have had a corrosive effect on the people’s confidence in both their own economic prospects and government’s ability to do anything about them. What once were hallmarks of success — a new home or two cars — have become burdens to many families living paycheck to paycheck. Paying for health care, college education and retirement now seem out of reach for growing numbers of middle-class families.

Politicians still talk about the American Dream, but for much of the middle-class, the dream is an outdated concept. The most telling example comes in a new Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll. A steady job and keeping up with expenses are now the most prized commodities for a majority of middle-class Americans, not tangible possessions.

Holding on and not falling further behind is the way many workers now look at the future. Fifty-two percent of people in the poll said the middle class has less opportunity to get ahead than did their parents’ generation, according to the survey. Sixty-five percent said the middle class has less job and financial security than did their parents’ generation.

Not quite half of full-time employees in the middle class said it’s very realistic that they will have job security, and not quite a fifth of those between 40 and 59 said it is very realistic that they can save enough to retire comfortably.

Imbued with cynicism

Washington’s collective indifference or inability to confront these challenges hasn’t escaped notice. A majority of African Americans and not quite half of all Hispanics express confidence that Obama’s policies will increase opportunities for them to get ahead in the future. But among whites, only a small minority said they believe his policies will help them achieve that kind of success, according to the poll.

Is it any wonder that people are cynical about politicians when, for two years, those people have been bombarded with television ads and political rhetoric that exude empathy for their plight and offer assurances that something will be done about it, and then after the campaign is over see those politicians failing to take action?

There are no quick fixes to the economic problems that continue to gnaw at the confidence of so many families, as there were to the problem of airline delays. But Congress’s action this past week only highlighted anew the absence of any serious effort to live up to the promises of the last campaign. Has the forgotten middle class been forgotten once again?

For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.

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