THE MISSING MIDDLE

Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy

By Theda Skocpol

Norton. 207 pp. $25.95

This overview of the American political landscape at the end of the 20th century starts with a reasonable premise: "A 'missing middle' has emerged in American social policy and political debates, as we argue about supposed trade-offs between helping young and old, while failing to address the values and needs of working parents who are at the vortex of contemporary social changes." But it veers off onto shakier ground once its author has analyzed this premise. At that point Theda Skocpol lapses into partisanship, which will please those who share her loyalties but is unlikely to win many converts.

Skocpol, who teaches government and sociology at Harvard, correctly points out that the current debate over social policy is dominated by right-wingers seeking "to slash government and reward the most privileged with tax cuts" and left-wingers "who engage in rearguard defense of existing government programs or speak only about 'helping children.' " She writes:

"The middle has been left outside contemporary social policy debates, because neither right nor left has much to say about the real-world situation of the vast bulk of ordinary American families who live by wages and salaries, espouse moderate social values, and struggle with the new stresses that families now must face."

This is largely because grass-roots politics, in which ordinary people once participated with enthusiasm and to considerable effectiveness, no longer plays a large role. The debate in Washington is dominated by special-interest groups and the organizations that represent them. These tend to speak for the most visible and the most wealthy, and they speak in the voices of lobbyists rather than of the citizens whose interests are at stake. The political conversation in Washington has become a closed enterprise in which voices from the real world outside are rarely heard and even more rarely heeded. In a word, the debate has become professionalized.

So the rich, whose voices are amplified all out of proportion to their actual numbers, rewrite the tax laws to their liking; and the poor, whose needs are evident and who evoke sympathy--especially among educated liberal activists--are attended to as well, if less generously these days. But "the people who put in long hours to earn a living and make a decent life--coping with rising pressures in their workplaces, while trying to raise children in solo-parent or dual-worker households"--are lost in the din, even though they are "the vast majority of Americans [who] live on their wages and make modest incomes--between the roughly $17,000 for a family of four that marks the 'poverty line' and the roughly $50,000 a year for a family of four that marks about 25 percent more than the middle point of American family incomes."

Over the years the needs of these people have been served by various programs--Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill--the salient characteristics of which are or were: They rewarded service to the nation or prepared citizens for future contributions, they attracted support from broad constituencies that crossed class lines, their services were augmented by private, voluntary agencies, and they drew upon "reliable and expanding public revenues."

Support for these programs diminished or fragmented for several reasons: resentment in the baby-boomer generation over suspicions that the old were prospering on the backs of the young; racial and class prejudices that intensified after the civil rights revolution and various anti-poverty programs; and the tax rebellion that began in California in the 1970s and in time became central to the new Republican orthodoxy.

This reduction in support, Skocpol argues in "The Missing Middle," is not necessarily permanent and can be reversed. She further argues that "enhanced social benefits available to both middle- and low-income workers are crucial for building a family-friendly America" and that support for such benefits already exists because many would be aimed at working adults who tend now to be ignored, both because they are voiceless in the debate and because it is widely (and incorrectly) assumed their boats have risen with the tide of economic expansion.

At this point Skocpol tries to strike a balance between "vibrant market capitalism and adequate social supports for working families," but this attempt to find a broad political base quickly founders on her reflexive insistence that a "new network of progressive groups" and a "revitalized, majority Democratic Party" hold the key to "a new partnership with working families." This sounds more like a plank in the Democratic platform than a dispassionate proposal, and surely will be dismissed as such by many readers.

Jonathan Yardley whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.