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Middle Class Strife Left Out of Conversation

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Oh, to live in Washington, where the annoyances of external reality are so conveniently ignored and The Conversation can be changed like an un-liked song on the national iPod.

Was it not just a couple of weeks ago that The Conversation was all about the supposed five-alarm emergency of the federal budget deficit and the hellish consequences that surely awaited the continuation of profligate spending? Never mind. The political establishment decided to tack another $900 billion on the federal tab to stave off an apparently more dire crisis: the prospect that tax cuts lavished on people wealthy enough to worry about mooring charges might soon expire.

Now, the only talk that seems capable of sustaining the Conversation is whether tax cuts for the richest will be extended again two years forward, and how this will play for those determined to become President.

How can we generate quality jobs by the million and prevent more homeowners from sliding into foreclosure? How can we arrest the long-running breakdown in American middle class life? These are fragments of a narrative long since discarded as politically infertile. They no longer fit into the format of the Sunday talk shows, where the only real question is who won the week, because no one is even trying to win on these points. Not this week. Not any week. The unemployment rate remains snagged at nearly 10 percent and 6.3 million people have been officially out of work for six months and longer, but the Conversation has moved on.

If only the topic of discussion could be so easily be dispatched around the dining room tables of ordinary Americans (an institution increasingly dependent on food stamps). There, the conversation seems stuck on the puzzle of the age: How to get by with less. How to pretend that, despite all indications to the contrary, better days lie ahead, because that's how things are supposed to go in the movie version of this land of limitless opportunity.

That dream has become increasingly difficult to sustain in the face of a broad sagging of national fortunes, a point brought home with discomfiting clarity by a new study released this morning by the Rockefeller Foundation. The report, "Standing on Shaky Ground: Americans' Experiences With Economic Insecurity," lays out just how savagely most Americans have been battered by the Great Recession and the degree to which fundamental economic anxiety has insinuated itself into the national psyche. It reads like a catalog of needs deferred, hopes relinquished and sustenance denied as people have lost their peace of mind, along with their jobs and savings.

Between March 2008 and September 2009 -- a span that captures the worst of the recession -- more than nine in ten American households suffered either a "substantial decline in their wealth or earnings," or a significant drain on their funds due to an emergency, such as an expensive health crisis or the need to help a relative, according to the report, which draws on surveys of more than 2,000 people.

Far from an affliction reserved for the poor, the recession spread widespread pain across the income spectrum, even as the consequences proved sharpest for those at the bottom. Even in households with incomes ranging between $60,000 and $100,000 a year, among those who suffered the loss of wages or large unexpected medical bills, more than half reported having been "unable to meet at least one basic need." Put simply, they had lost their homes due to foreclosure or eviction, skipped meals, or dispensed with necessary medical care.

The report adds the imprimatur of academic authority to a reality that most ordinary people already know: Long before the headlines became consumed with economic crisis in 2008, times were already lean. Jobs were scarce and wages were stagnating, if not declining. People whose parents had been accustomed to expecting more as the years unfolded were contending with the likelihood of diminished aspirations as work became less rewarding and the costs of education housing and health care climbed.

Anxiety about job security jumped dramatically over the last two years for most Americans, but concerns about retirement savings, medical bills and housing changed little: They were already as common in 2007 as they were during the worst period of the recession, the study found.

And yet, despite the conspicuous evidence that large numbers of people are still ensnared by this recession, despite the abundance of signs that the last quarter-century has proven cruelly inadequate for people accustomed to living on what they can earn, The Conversation in Washington is surreally divorced from this reality. President Obama and his advisers insist they had to accept the extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest -- a primary source of the aggravated inequality that has afflicted the economy -- in order to get some relief. This was the cost of extending emergency unemployment benefits for people who have reached the limit. This was the cost of lowering payroll taxes in a bid to spur jobs.

But none of that addresses the long-term vibrancy of the economy. None of that amounts to a viable plan to help nurture new industries and provoke serious job growth. That will take money and time and political fight. It will require a sustained effort and a willingness to take on the enemies of change in Washington -- a bipartisan interest group that seems to hold the votes on everything. And there is no sign of that today, alas.

It is as if the mode of thinking on Wall Street -- where prosperity is measured in incremental movements in share prices -- has so saturated the Congress and the Obama administration that an unemployment epidemic and a foreclosure crisis is, as they say, already priced into the market. It has been accepted as the new baseline of the political discussion, a facet of life so taken for granted that it is hardly even worth discussing.

If the findings in the paper released this day were new, they would surely inspire immediate action. If terrorists were planning a plot that could, in one cataclysm, visit such damage on American households as has been collectively absorbed in recent years, whole arms of the government would now be in full crisis mode. Instead, the chattering class goes on, picking over the electoral implications of one tax scheme or another. The Conversation is a small-minded, dispiriting drone.

"There's planet earth and there's planet Washington," says Yale University political scientist Jacob S. Hacker, the study's lead author. "The telescopes on planet Washington seem not powerful enough to reach to planet earth."


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