The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Middle Class rises again…


December 18, 2007

Several days ago, I asked if someone making 97,000 / year was Middle Class, and Rodger followed up wonderful post on the two “two Americas,” economic and cultural.

Matt Bai, NY Times Magazine political writer and new contributor to their political blog The Caucus, raises the issue again. Responding to a John Edwards ad where Edwards promises to “save the middle class,” Bai asks:

All the Democratic candidates, to one extent or another, have been blurring the distinction between the poor and the “middle class” — arguing, in effect, that rising inequality means there is increasingly little distinction between the two. It’s important to define these terms, because they have a lot to do with how you make policy. We know what we mean by poverty, more or less; the federal government defines that by income ($20,650 for a family of four at the moment), and about 14 percent of Americans qualify. But you might be surprised to learn — I certainly was — that there is no recognized definition of what it means to be middle class….

Think about the implications this debate has for an issue like health care. Like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and most of the other Democrats running, Edwards would offer subsidies for “middle-class” families to make insurance more affordable. But how high will those subsidies go? Will health care be more affordable for a household where two working parents make, say, a combined $100,000 but struggle mightily with childcare and a mortgage? Is that family considered middle class or rich?

From Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, Democrats have succeeded in helping the most vulnerable American families when they’ve built the broadest possible economic constituency for their reforms. Most Americans describe themselves as middle class, and with good reason; their daily economic decisions may not be life-or-death, but they’re not easy, either. If the family on the edge of six figures isn’t, in fact, going to get a health-care subsidy, then a lot of American families might not view the proposed program as being about the middle class, at all. And what makes us think they’d support it? And what might that ultimately mean for the lower-income families who need the most assistance?

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.