There’s an important new book by Peter Temin, professor emeritus of economics at MIT, titled The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy. It paints a depressing portrait of America and the evaporation of what used to be a healthy middle class.
His assertion: America is no longer a single country. Instead, we are two separate nations, and those nations have dramatically different resources, expectations and fates. As a post to the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking put it,
In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology and electronics, the industries that largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies and count themselves lucky to be Americans.
The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.
According to Temin, the two sectors have entirely distinct financial systems, residential options and educational opportunities, and their inhabitants have very different experiences when they get sick or interact with the law.
Worst of all, those in the low-wage sector have no way out. American social/economic mobility may have been real once, but it is a myth today.
A review of the book in the Atlantic was titled “Escaping Poverty Requires Almost Twenty Years with Almost Nothing Going Wrong.” The reviewer cites Temin’s assertion that racism, abetted by deliberate policy choices, produced these separate nations:
The upper class of FTE workers, who make up just one-fifth of the population, has strategically pushed for policies—such as relatively low minimum wages and business-friendly deregulation—to bolster the economic success of some groups and not others, largely along racial lines. “The choices made in the United States include keeping the low-wage sector quiet by mass incarceration, housing segregation and disenfranchisement.”…
Many cities, which house a disproportionate portion of the black (and increasingly, Latino) population, lack adequate funding for schools. And decrepit infrastructure and lackluster public transit can make it difficult for residents to get out of their communities to places with better educational or work opportunities. Temin argues that these impediments exist by design.
The book does offer a way out– suggestions for remedying the hopelessness of those trapped in low-income America.
He offers five proposals that he says might help the country return to more equal footing. Some are fairly clear levers that many before him have recommending pulling: expanding access to and improving public education (particularly early education), repairing infrastructure, investing less in programs like prisons that oppress poor minorities, and increasing funding for those that can help build social capital and increase economic mobility. But other suggestions of his are more ambitious and involve fundamentally changing the cultural beliefs that have been reinforced over generations. Temin advocates doing away with the belief that private agencies can act in the interest of all citizens in the way that public entities can, and should. His final recommendation is to address systemic racism by reviving the spirit of the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s and 1970s, when civil-rights legislation helped to desegregate schools and give black Americans more political and economic power.
I agree that changing the culture is imperative; but it is also an incredibly slow and difficult process.
If someone knows how, I hope they’ll share….