Friday, June 06, 2008

We're All Middle Class

Now, to be fair, this is not a Republican or a Democratic trick, it is dishearteningly bi-partisan. In this instance I wrote to my Representative in particular because he had announced joining a new Caucus in the House, and I was hoping that in the context of a legislative body, some of the disingenuousness might be stripped from the tactic.

Alas, no.

What is this tactic? "Supporting the Middle Class."
Why is this tactic disingenuous? Well, you can go back and read the letter I sent, or you can just read Congressman Tiberi's response, which does a pretty fair job of summarizing:

Dear Mr. Sullivan,

Thank you very much for your email concerning the Congressional Caucus on the Middle Class. I'm glad you took a moment to write.

As of this email, 35 members of the U.S. House of Representatives representing both political parties have joined the Congressional Caucus on the Middle Class. The Caucus was created to serve as a forum for discussion and bipartisan policy development on issues that affect a broad range of American society such as rising gas prices, access to health care, retirement and financial literacy, and housing, just to name a few.

The release I issued announcing my membership in this caucus mentioned a report issued by the non-partisan Pew Research Center, a subsidiary of the widely known and respected Pew Charitable Trusts. This report was presented as providing a "portrait" of the middle class and may be found online by visiting

As you note in your letter, the Pew report survey indicates that 92 percent of American adults identify themselves as belonging to some part of the middle class. The report also draws a distinction (that you also recognize in your email) between the use of the terms "middle class" and "middle income." When I was growing up in Columbus I always thought of my family as middle class. But as a participant in the free and reduced lunch program in Columbus public schools, we may not have been - especially if the middle class had been defined only as an expression of wealth or median income. I believe the report's concept of the middle class as, "a state of mind as well as a statement of income and wealth" is something we should be mindful of as the Caucus proceeds with its work.

Again, the Caucus was designed as a forum where we can discuss and, hopefully, come to agreement on, solutions to problems faced by a wide range of Americans. I'm concerned that conditions and limitations placed on the work of the caucus, either by members of the Caucus or other groups or individuals, could result in a closed forum whose work would resemble the gridlock along party lines that we unfortunately see in Washington, D.C. all too often.

Thank you again for your email.


Patrick J. Tiberi

Perhaps a bit of background is required: American families were asked to identify themselves as "lower," "lower middle," "middle" "upper middle," or "upper" class. In addition, family incomes were divided into 5 equally sized income brackets - lower, lower-middle, middle, upper-middle, and upper. Even though, 60% of Americans fall into those middle three income groups, 92% of Americans use one of the middle three labels. Making things even trickier, many people in the middle three income brackets actually identify themselves as "lower" or "upper" class, meaning that if middle class is both a mental state and an income level, the proportion of people under discussion is closer to 95%. Mr. Tiberi is right when he says that a family that qualifies for reduced price school lunches is probably middle-class in their own minds, but not by economic standards. This only becomes a problem when someone seeks to 'support the middle class' by giving a tax break to those who earn 150k-200k per year, and fund it by cutting back on programs supporting the "poor," like food stamps or even... reduced price lunches. Unless your policy predominantly affects multi-millionaires and/or the homeless, it will by definition be predominantly affecting members of the middle class.

There's nothing wrong with "a forum where we can discuss and, hopefully, come to agreement on, solutions to problems faced by a wide range of Americans." As a matter of fact, I kind of thought that's what Congress was.


Paul said...


Well said.

I've referred a couple of times in my blog to an interview I watched with Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren. She had begun a line of research motivated by the belief that the many Americans who are declaring bankruptcy are doing so simply because they were lazy gluttons (my words, not hers).

What she found was something quite different - that many hard working American families were only a paycheck or two away from financial disaster. It wasn't an income thing - families earn more now in inflation adjusted dollars than any time in American history.

The root problem, she said, is the amount of money we spend on housing, and we do so because it's how we go about selecting where our kids go to school.

That struck a chord with me, as you might imagine. Central Ohio is a model of this. If you want your kids to attend a great school system, you have to be able to afford a home within its boundaries.

For a long time, that meant Bexley, Upper Arlington, Grandview Heights or Worthington.

Then the Columbus desegregation decision happened, and White Flight began. All the affordable housing in Bexley, UA and Grandview was snapped up first. Then the White Flight to I-270 suburbs began. The developers had hit a gold mine.

Unlike Bexley, UA, and Grandview, Worthington had a lot of room to develop.

... you know the rest of the story. Development is sinking all of our I-270 school systems. Some have better life preservers than others (e.g. Dublin, New Albany), but all are adrift with no rescue on the horizon.

And now the value of that real estate that the middle-class mortgaged themselves to the hilt to afford has collapsed, wiping out virtually all of their net worth.

Which makes the people of those suburbs much less willing to vote in favor of substantial operating levies, especially now that they are gaining an understanding that 90% of that levy money goes to pay the salaries and benefits of the teachers, administrators and staff. And instead of being mediocre as I think many assumed, the taxpayers have taken notice that those salaries and especially benefits have become better than most enjoy, with much more job security. Here in Hilliard, more than a few folks in very nice neighborhoods have told me that a material increase in their property taxes will drive them over the economic brink. These are the folks Professor Warren is talking about.

The solution? I think we need to decouple where you live from the schools you attend. If we quit using the cost of real estate as the price of admission to decent schools, people will make their housing selection based on other criteria - and today that's apt to be the cost of commuting to work. It could lead to a renewal of urban living, better mass transit, and a revitalization of the urban school system as people get interested in fixing the urban schools so their kids can attend one close to their new urban home.

America is, I think, is nearing one of those inflection points where lots of people are compelled to deal with fundamental economic forces that have been building up for many years - kind of like the stress that accumulates in a geological fault prior to a big earthquake. The dot com bust was one of those tremors. The subprime mortgage situation is a pretty good one. The rapidly rising price of oil is maybe what sets off the big one.

Maybe our government can attenuate the impact with bold action now. Sadly, I think our political system has decayed into one without the fortitude to take such action, and the American public is unwilling to make the sacrifice anyway.

So the big quake will happen, and lots of people will be hurt badly, just like the Great Depression. Many would argue - including me - that the only thing that got us out of that was WWII.

Just as we saw (for a short while) after 9/11, our country galvanized into patriotism and a common goal. Every person had a role, and a job, in the war effort. In the course of four short years, we built up our manufacturing capability while the rest of the world's was destroyed. You don't have to be particularly good to dominate a world without competition.

Too bad Mr. Bush, little wars don't have the same effect. We don't really feel threatened, just pissed off. And there are still enough nuclear weapons out there to make a big war unimaginable. Besides, who's going to attack us, and who would we nuke?

I think this is just the way nature and evolution works. Things seem hunky-dory right up until the big meteor, or earthquake or whatever, and then they go to crap in an instant. Then the pecking order changes in a dramatic and unforeseen way.

Or maybe a national leader emerges that smacks us out of our stupor and leads us toward solutions.

It gives one pause to think how much this scenario sounds like the end days described in the Christian book of Revelations.


Rog said...

Okay, let me get this right. Tiberi said " When I was growing up in Columbus I always thought of my family as middle class. But as a participant in the free and reduced lunch program in Columbus public schools, we may not have been" but now as a Congressman he votes to cut the same programs he used as a child. How we forget were we came form.