Will Obama’s plans help the middle class?
Presidential policies aim to tackle average Americans’ widening insecurity.
America remains a “yes, we can” kind of nation, but the aspirations of the vast middle class are under strain – enough to be the subject of a presidential task force.Skip to next paragraph
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President-elect Obama made it official earlier this week. Come January, a key job of Vice President Joseph Biden will be to come up with ways to boost middle-class incomes and to address related concerns about job and retirement security.
Of course, the very phrase “middle class” is a fuzzy one, and a topic perennially on the minds of politicians. But ordinary Americans are confronting a real economic squeeze.
Pay isn’t rising as fast as it used to, relative to economic growth. And over the past decade, households have stretched their debt loads to historic highs. Now an economic downturn is amplifying concerns about the security of careers, health insurance, and pensions.
In November, consumers pulled back on their spending for the fifth straight month, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. Polls suggest widespread feelings of financial insecurity among working families – not just the direct impact of job losses – are a big reason.
“It’s an extremely important issue and a very timely one economically,” says Lane Kenworthy, a sociologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “The time is right for a very serious look” at middle-class challenges.
When economic challenges become widespread, the social and political fabric of a nation can be damaged, some researchers say. The reverse is also true, argues Benjamin Friedman, a Harvard University economist.
In his 2005 book “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth,” he makes the case that a growing economy in which progress is broadly shared becomes morally and politically stronger.
The American public now appears to be on the fence about which way the country is headed. Six in 10 consumers who are cutting back say the reason is worry that things might get worse, according to a Pew Research Center poll taken earlier this month. Half that many said they had curbed spending because their financial situation actually is worse.
But can-do optimism endures. Some 68 percent of poll respondents agreed with the statement, “As Americans, we can always find ways to solve our problems and get what we want.” That number is higher than it was in 2004.
Mr. Obama announced the so-called White House Task Force on Working Families on Dec. 21. The selection of his vice president to head it suggests that Biden, known also for his foreign-policy expertise, will have a big role on domestic policy as well.