The coming of Independence Day is an opportunity to assess the American Dream of equal opportunity and middle-class status. Unfortunately, for more than four decades, the middle class has been squeezed. Today, too many hard-working Americans find themselves financially treading water or falling behind. And the increased pressure on the middle class has taken more than a financial toll. According to the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, “Even the physical and mental health of the American middle class is getting progressively worse.”
President Biden’s election gave many Americans hope that the middle class would finally catch a break. “The middle class is in trouble,” said candidate Biden in 2020. “It’s not just their perception. They are in trouble.” Indeed, the President’s American Jobs Plan and American Families plan were designed to give everyday Americans a boost after years of income inequality and rising costs, exacerbated by the COVID recession. But efforts to fortify the middle class have run into a wall of obstruction from many Republicans who prefer to continue the status quo of enriching the wealthy and large corporations at the expense of everyone else.
If the middle class is the foundation of our economy (and the quintessence of the American Dream), then it is a sagging foundation that badly needs to be rebuilt. The structural problems facing the once-thriving American middle class are formidable. The decline in middle class prosperity parallels the ascendance of Reaganomics in the early 1980s, including tax policy favoring the wealthy and corporations, excessive deregulation, and the weakening of labor unions, aggravated by the soaring cost of everything from education to health care.
Whereas 50 years ago it took only one income earner for a family to enjoy a reasonable middle-class living, now it takes two. In post-war America, middle class workers once were able to look forward to a financially secure retirement. But difficulty saving for retirement and the scarcity of employer-provided pensions have left too many of today’s retirees struggling to make ends meet, even with their hard-earned Social Security benefits. Seniors who ‘don’t want to be a burden’ regrettably find themselves in need of financial support from their adult children.
This is a raw deal for American workers whose productivity has risen but whose share of the economic pie is practically frozen, while corporate profits and CEO compensation soar. Without the comprehensive structural change that President Biden proposes (including better, higher paying jobs, stronger labor unions, a tax code that favors workers over the wealthy, and expanded Social Security and Medicare benefits), the game will remain rigged in favor of the ultra-rich and powerful.
Polling suggests that proposals to build a fairer economy (or to “Build Back Better,” as President Biden says) enjoy widespread public support, including the President’s expanded vision of infrastructure, paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Fifty-seven percent say the very wealthy should pay more in taxes than they do now, which could help fund proposals to boost the middle class. More than half of middle-class respondents in a recent Pew poll say the President and Congress should do more to reduce income inequality.
The President is doing his part. But Congress, elected to respond to constituents’ needs, must do more. Instead, most Republicans have chosen to follow Minority Leader Mitch McConnell down a path of obstructionism for partisan gain. Senator McConnell, who in 2009 famously pledged “to make (Obama) a one-term President,” has now promised to block President Biden’s entire agenda, no matter how important it may be to the American people.
During the Trump presidency, Republicans blocked reforms that would have helped everyday Americans—especially the House-passed H.R. 1 (voting rights), and H.R. 3 (prescription drug pricing reform). Worse yet, they enacted the Trump/GOP tax cuts of 2017 mainly benefitting the wealthy and large corporations on the empty promise that it would create jobs. Next, prominent Republicans suggested cuts to Social Security and Medicare to help close the deficit created by their reckless tax cuts. Meanwhile, the GOP repeatedly tried to strip away health coverage from tens of millions of Americans through repeal of—and legal challenges to—the Affordable Care Act.
Time and time again, Republican leaders have proven that they favor the interests of their rich and powerful donors over those of the middle class. This is due in no small part to the excessive political power of monied, right-wing interests. American oligarchs like the Kochs and Mercers—not to mention Big Pharma, the insurance industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others—spend billions of dollars electing politicians who obstruct progress and perpetuate the status quo of economic inequality.
In their study, Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, Yale University political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that “the high incomes enjoyed by an increasingly rich elite have led to a situation where America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefited the few at the expense of the many.” The House-passed ‘For the People’ voting rights act (H.R. 1) would go a long way toward restoring political power to everyday people, but Republicans led by Senator McConnell have blocked even so much as debate on the bill in the Senate.
As a nation, we can’t move forward unless everyone has an opportunity to thrive. That means the opportunity to earn a living wage. It means affordable, accessible health care for all Americans. It means access to education and training for everyone. It means having enough income to save for retirement, free from anxiety about falling into poverty, being isolated at home or stuck in a long-term care facility—or being a burden to family members.
Equally as important, the middle class cannot retire with security or dignity without Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We must strengthen and expand these crucial social insurance programs, rather than cut benefits as many conservatives have urged. Today, seniors who worked hard their entire lives and earned their retirement benefits still do not receive hearing, vision, and dental coverage through traditional Medicare. Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) do not keep pace with increases in seniors’ true living expenses. Sky-high prescription drug prices force too many retirees to choose between medicine and other essentials like food and rent.
President Biden has called for improvements in all of these areas. Democrats in Congress have introduced (or are working on) legislation to expand Social Security and Medicare and to finally reduce prescription drug prices (principally by allowing Medicare to negotiate prices with Big Pharma). Bipartisan agreement on an infrastructure plan provides a glimmer of hope that the usual gridlock on Capitol Hill can be broken, though Democrats may have to push through other agenda items to help the middle class on party-line votes through the reconciliation process.
As Congress approaches its July 4th recess, let’s recommit ourselves to independence from widespread financial insecurity, independence from the inability to afford health care and prescription drugs, and freedom from anxiety about retirement for all Americans who have worked hard to join or remain in our country’s vast middle class. Congress must represent everyday people over powerful interests. It’s time for all Senators and Representatives to unite around an agenda that truly rebuilds our beleaguered middle class.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.