The Smart Money: The (un)civil war among the middle classes - Part One

Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: The (un)civil war among the middle classes - Part One

courtesy NPR.  This graphic demonstrates how the poor and middle classes spend the majority of their incomes on necessities.  That spending ends up in the local economy, stimulating it.

by Gina Hamilton

There's a war going on between people who should be looking out for one another's best interests because, if for no other reason, those interests dovetail exactly with their own. Here's a true story, and a cautionary tale:

A few years ago, a group of teachers at a midcoast school district met to discuss a grievance many of them shared. This issue was typical in many ways - the school was asking teachers to give up after-school time without compensation or recognition on a daily basis to cover things like detention and bus duty, tasks that had formerly been the purview of education technicians, whose jobs were being cut.

These requirements affected all teachers, whether or not the teachers were already engaged in tutoring, after-school activities, coaching, or other events involving students, and they had valid concerns. But during the meeting, several teachers also spoke up about janitorial staff pay, which they pointed out (in this school district) was higher than typical for the area. Rather than lauding their fellow employees' collective bargaining skills, these teachers were upset about the janitors' pay, especially in light of their own new responsibilities.

Why would a teacher, earning $38,000 per year, complain that a janitor, earning $32,000 per year, is making too much money, rather than question the salaries of the multiple administrators in this particular district who were earning more than $100,000 per year each? Why weren't they arguing that some of the ed tech jobs, at about $24,000, should be saved by reducing one or more administrators?

There is a decidedly uncivil war raging among the middle classes, and an even more uncivil war waged by the middle class against the working poor and the destitute. We can see it in states where the Republican governors have initiated a war on union labor, especially among the civil service, including in Maine. The Republican governors and their legislative leaders are styling the war 'a taxpayer revolt', pitting those in the middle class who work in the private sector against those in the middle class who work in the public sector.

But all of them, whether they work in the public or private sector, pay taxes to support essential government functions, so to call it a taxpayer revolt is, at the very least, disingenuous. And all middle class taxpayers use the government services that are being funded, whether they are schools, roads, parks, libraries, water districts, police and fire services, etc. Even those services that do not touch them directly - such as health care services for the poor - help the middle class indirectly, since these services keep unpaid emergency room visits at a minimum, visits that would increase their own health care premiums. And seniors, who complain about paying for school districts, would be alarmed if students failed to find high-paying jobs after dropping out of the resulting poorer schools, since their own Social Security and Medicare benefits depends on new, young, affluent workers paying into the system.

Framing the debate

Although many Republicans in the last election decried 'class warfare' (between the middle and working classes against the rich), the truth is Americans are dealing with in-fighting among people who should really be supportive of one another. The reason for this 'class on class' warfare is that the upper classes and their spokesmen have done a much better job framing the economic debate than the middle classes, for all their numbers. In reality, the middle classes would materially benefit from things like single-payer universal health care, a much more progressive income tax structure, more support for public universities, more support for public childcare, and better K-12 education. It is the middle class who benefits from strong unionization - even if some have never been members of a union.

For instance, middle class small business owners - and even large business owners - benefit when wages for the middle class are high and retirement income is generous, because it is the middle class and the retired who make up the majority of their customers. If the customers have more disposable income, they are likely to spend it, rather than save it for a rainy day. The middle class use most services, from yard and garden services to car repair to childcare centers. The very poor either use public services, such as public transit and Head Start, or go without, while the more affluent often hire their own help - gardener, au pair - rather than use a private business.

However, somewhere along the road, the reality - that the middle class is the engine that keeps the economy moving - met the spin.

Next week: The Spin

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