Across broad ideological lines, Americans now foresee a dismal, downwardly mobile future for the country’s middle and working classes. While previous generations generally did far better than their predecessors, those in the current one, outside the very rich, are locked in a struggle to carve out the economic opportunities and access to property that had become accepted norms here over the past century.
This deep-seated social change raises a profound dilemma for business: Either the private sector must find a way to boost economic opportunity, or political pressure seems likely to impose policies that will order redistribution from above. It is doubtful the majority of Americans will continue to support an economic system that seems to benefit only a relative few. Looking at our unequal landscape, one journalist recently asked: “Are the bread riots finally coming?”
By 2020, according to the Economic Policy Institute, almost 30% of American workers are expected to hold low-wage jobs, with earnings that would put them below the poverty line to support a family of four. The combination of high debt and low wages has some projections suggesting millennials may have to work until their early 70s.
But our new pessimism and widening class divide stems not only from the concentration of wealth and power, but from the persistence of weak economic growth.
Neo-populist groups on the left and the right have risen to employ political pressure to try and assure a decent quality of life. Ideologically robust liberals, like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, have emerged as national symbols of a movement in which cities have pushed strong moves like a $15 minimum wage (Seattle) and benefits for workers. Ironically, these are often the same places where wealth is most intensely concentrated and where the middle class has shrunk as a newly dominant, Obama-aligned Clerisy of public employee unions, government officials, academics and artists has gained the preponderance of political power.
The same sense of limited opportunity that drives the new progressives also motivates the popularity of libertarian and Tea Party activism on the right. Instead of state intervention, these groups have been attracted to the notion that removing barriers to economic growth will increase social mobility more effectively than redistribution by political fiat.
But these economic arguments that could generate more widespread support have been married with increasingly unpopular, often backward-looking social agendas that have allowed the Clerisy to portray them as fringe movements.
This has allowed Obama, de Blasio and others shape a new conversation centered on inequality, rather than growth. Oddly enough, it’s a model that relies on Europe’s example even as the continent’s own economic prospects appear dismal, and mainstream political parties there are registering their lowest levels of popular support in decades.
Though it can help some in the short run, there is little reason to think that more redistribution by the state would improve material conditions over the long term for our working and middle classes, let alone expand them. Rather, it might end up expanding our underclass of technological obsolete and economically superfluous dependents. The 50-year War on Poverty, for example, has achieved few gains since the 1960s despite fortunes spent. Instead, the only significant gains in poverty reduction, at least among those working, have come when both the economy and the job market expand, as they did during the Reagan and Clinton eras.
Clearly, as both those Presidents recognized, the best antidote to poverty remains a robust job market.
Yet even this progress has not helped the poorest of the poor, many of whom are marginally, if at all, connected to the workplace. Since 1980, the percentage of people living in “deep poverty”-with an income 50% below the official poverty line — has expanded dramatically. Despite now spending $750 billion annually on welfare programs, up 30% since 2008, a record 46 million Americans were in poverty in 2012.
It is possible that, as Franklin Roosevelt warned, a system of unearned payments, no matter how well intended, can serve as “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit” and reduce incentives for recipients to better their own lives.
The activist welfare-based philosophy, following the European model, would likely include not only historically poor populations, but part-time workers, perpetual students, and service employees living hand to mouth, who can make ends meet largely only if taxpayers underwrite their housing, transportation and other necessities. This trend towards an expansive welfare regime could be bolstered by our falling rates of labor participation — now at its lowest level in at least 25 years, and showing no signs of an immediate turnaround.
And the European model shows little evidence of the benefits of redistribution given the persistently high rates of unemployment, particularly among the young, across most of the EU; indeed much of the continent’s youth are widely described as a “lost generation.” Pervasive inequality and limited social mobility have been well-documented in larger European countries, including France, which has one of the world’s most evolved welfare states. It is even true in Scandinavia, often held up as the ultimate exemplar of egalitarianism, but where the gap between the wealthy and other classes have increased in Sweden four times more rapidly than in the United States over the past 15 years.
To be sure, progressive, or even ostensibly socialist approaches can ameliorate the worst impact of economic decline on lower-income people. But under left-wing governments — Socialists in France, New Labour in Britain and the Obama Administration in the U.S. — class chasms have increased markedly under leaders who insist their policies will reduce inequality. Much the same has occurred in countries with more conservative approaches.
In the absence of a focus on growing economies more rapidly and broadly, both political philosophies fall short.
But maintaining the prospect of upward mobility is central to the very idea of America. For generations, the surplus working class populations of the world have flocked here in search of opportunities unavailable in their home countries. In contrast, there remain few places for America’s aspirational classes to go.
Fortunately, the capitalist system, particularly under democratic control, allows for the possibility of reform. Take Great Britain, the homeland of the industrial revolution. In response to mass poverty and serious public health challenges during the 19th century, social reform movements led by the clergy and a rising professional class organized to address the most obvious defects caused by economic change. It is one of history’s great ironies that at the very time that Karl Marx was composing Das Kapital in the library at the British museum, life was rapidly improving for the British working class. Far from having “exhausted its resources” and precipitating all-out class war, the inequality so evident in mid-19th Century Britain began to narrow through natural economic forces and the growing power of working-class organizations. The working-class revolution in Britain, which Friedrich Engels insisted “must come,” never did.
Similarly, the Depression, brought on by what Keynes called “a crisis of abundance,” was addressed more by measures to spur mass demand than relying on redistribution. The New Deal, and then the Second World War, expanded government support for public works, education and housing, as well as infrastructure and research and development. Programs enacted then and after the war also encouraged widespread property ownership.
This state expansion was generally aimed at increasing economic opportunity-for example, by developing technologies that could stimulate new industrial sectors, new firms, and create new wealth. Today’s, on the other hand, is simply transferring income from one group to another.
Whatever criticisms can be made of mid-century America, during this period the nation transformed what had been a strongly unequal country into one where the blessings of prosperity were more broadly shared. In the 1950s, the bottom 90% held two-thirds of the wealth here. Today they barely claim half.
Sparking beneficial economic growth requires a shift in priorities, and thus presents a challenge to the new class order dominated by Wall Street, the tech oligarchy and their partners in the Clerisy. It is not enough merely to blame the so-called 1%, but to shift the benefits of growth away from the current hegemons, notably in the very narrow finance and high-tech sectors, and towards those involved in a broad array of productive enterprise.
The American economy’s capacity for renewal remains much greater than widely believed. Rather than a permanent condition of slow growth, the United States could be on the cusp of another period of broad-based expansion, spurred in part by its rapidly growing natural gas and oil production — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as cheap and abundant natural gas is luring investment from manufacturers from Europe and Asia, and providing good-paying American jobs.
This, along with growth in manufacturing, could spark better times for the middle class, as would the re-igniting of single-family home construction.
If America really wants to confront its growing class divide, it needs to spark such broad-based economic growth, rather than simply feathering the nests of the already rich, privileged and well-connected.
This story originally appeared at New York Daily News..
Cross-posted at New Geography.