President Obama’s Middle Class: the Rhetoric and the Reality

It should come as no surprise that President Obama focused on the “middle class” in his State of the Union speech. He mentioned that term six times, even calling it “our generation’s task…to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class.” What the president didn’t mention was the critical role that a powerful labor movement played in birthing the growing middle class that came out of World War II and maintained its status through the 1950s and ‘60s. No, the term “labor” or “labor union” didn’t make it into the speech.

The term deficit did. Five times, and as long as the President continues to focus on cutting Federal spending as part of his hoped-for Grand Bargain with the Republicans, no improvement in middle class job creation is likely. While many commentators saw the president’s speech as progressive, that accolade referred more to his rhetoric than to specific proposals. One of the few concrete suggestions that Obama presented was an increase in the Federal minimum wage. Here’s how he framed it: “Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.” But would that bring workers out of poverty? If the president did the math, he would see that even with the raise from $7.25 an hour to $9.00, a full-time wage earner would have a yearly income of $18, 720, still thousands of dollars below the Federal government’s very conservative poverty line for a family of four, around $22,000.

In the mid-50s, 35% of American workers belonged to unions, as a result of the militant organizing drives of the 1930s and strong contracts that were subsequently negotiated. More and more American workers achieved a middle class standard of living, with decent wages, paid vacations, medical insurance, a 40 hour work week and time and a half for overtime. That high union percentage in the 1950s has declined to 11.3% today, its lowest level in nearly a century, and with that drop-off has come stagnant wages and high unemployment amidst growing inequality and record corporate profits.

Backed by organized labor in the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Obama supported the Employee Free Choice Act, a piece of legislation that would have made the process of union organizing much easier. As president, though, he did nothing to support the measure, and in the 2012 campaign didn’t even mention the bill. In 2007, Senator Obama famously proclaimed that he would fight for workers’ rights to collective bargaining, that he would “put on a comfortable pair of shoes…[and] walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America.” But when President Obama could have supported the tens of thousands of workers fighting for collective bargaining in Wisconsin in 2011, he was conspicuously AWOL.

Public employee unions representing teachers, firefighters, police and municipal workers have been the growth segment of organized labor since the 1970s, but over 600,000 public sector workers have lost their jobs in the past four years. And these were mostly middle class jobs. And unless Congress and the Obama administration intervene, U.S. Postal Service employees will join the ranks of the formerly middle class. Unlike any other government agency, the Postal Service is mandated to set aside health insurance payments for its employees ten years in advance. That mandate has led to the vast bulk of the Postal Service deficit, a figure which public employee opponents utilize in their effort to gradually dismantle, if not privatize, mail delivery. Unless I’ve missed something, President Obama has uttered not a word to change the unjust mandate and to support postal employees.

My father worked in the Post Office as I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s . With a low interest government-backed mortgage, my parents achieved their American Dream with a new house in a working class suburb. My dad never had a new car but we were comfortable and my sister and I went on to get graduate degrees at fine state colleges and universities. FDR Democrats, my parents were both proud union members and lived through the gains of the New Deal.

Those times are mostly gone now, and the 2013 State of the Union address by a Democratic president would give them no reason for optimism. If change is to come, if we are once again to have “a rising, thriving middle class,” impetus for that change won’t emanate from the current White House.

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