One of my favorite quotes is FDR's famous line, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." This moral and economic principle is at the core of what it means to be a Democrat/progressive. And it is a test we are failing miserably.
How did we get to this point? We can and should blame Republican political leaders and the Ayn Rand/Tea Partiers. But there is a difference -- both from an ethical and practical perspective -- between blame and responsibility. Although they may be to blame, progressives and Democrats share some of the responsibility.
President Obama often brags on the stump about how he wants to extend the "middle class" tax cuts for 98% of Americans, but what that means is that he's fighting to lower taxes for Americans at the 98th percentile of income. In fact, one of the top legislative priorities for Democrats (and many progressives) has become extending the "middle class" tax cuts for people making up to $250,000 a year.
Who could have imagined a decade ago that a top Democratic legislative priority in a Presidential election year would be extending 98% of the Bush tax cuts?! But more to the point, because we're defining "middle class" as people making up to $250,000 a year, our side is fighting tooth and nail (and feeling self-righteous in doing so) to extend the Bush tax cuts for people who make in a year what the average American makes in a decade. We may proudly proclaim that we are not on the side of the 1%, but championing people who make more than 98% of American workers puts us pretty darned close.
Jesus taught that "from those to whom much is given, much is expected." Spiderman put it another way: "with great power comes great responsibility." But "much" and "great" are relative terms. And when the rich are repeatedly told they are in the "middle" and deserve help, they not only lose their sense of responsibility, they often gain a sense of entitlement. This highlights the great conservative lie: a sense of "entitlement" doesn't come when you're working two jobs to make ends meet and you're given a leg up. It comes when you have much, but are told your struggles are the same as everybody else's. And this is why I am so troubled by the term "middle class."
I know "middle class" polls well and that all Americans like to think of themselves as "middle class," whether they are or not. And in this age where everyone gets a trophy and Jersey Shore and Real Housewives are considered reality TV, why not pretend that 98% of Americans are in the "middle class," especially if saying it might helps us win?
Here's why: The median American income is only $26,300 a year. That means 50% of working Americans make LESS than $26,300. $26,300 is the real middle. The hardships faced by people who make $250,000 and $26,000 annually are not even remotely the same. Policies focused on helping people making $250,000, $200,000, or (dare I go as low as the 90th percentile of household income) $150,000 each year generally do not address the same needs as those of the median American wage earner who makes only $13.60/hour. We box ourselves into a corner when we talk only about the "middle class," and especially when pretend that label actually applies to people making hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
"Middle class" is the chemical weapon of political warfare. We know applying the "middle class" label broadly works and can help us win in the short term. But those victories come at a cost to who we are... and tend to result in long-term (and not insignificant) casualties for those we are supposedly fighting to defend.
Republicans are the Party of the Rich. Democrats now fashion ourselves the Party of the "Middle Class." Can anyone think of a group left with no champion? Here's a hint: 20% of Americans with a full time job are getting paid so little that--even with both parents working full time--their family of four is still living in poverty. But when's the last time you heard a Democratic politician even mention the word "poor"?
(As a Christian, I am compelled to point out that there is only one time in the Bible where Jesus lays out the criteria he will use to judge the world: Matthew 25, "whatever you do unto the least of these." But if I started pulling out Scripture on these issues, this piece would never end.)
Our leaders no longer talk about "the poor" because they have been convinced by pollsters that any such mention is a political loser. But when we pretend poor people and families barely getting by are "middle class," it's impossible to confront and call out the injustices we are trying to right. And we're sending a message to those low-income families that even though they are working their tails off, there is something about them we're ashamed of and that they should be too.
Sure, everyone can just think of themselves as "middle class" even though they aren't. But then the poor become an other whom even Democrats won't defend. And when that happens, we lose... and all the low-income people calling themselves "middle class" wake up one morning and find there isn't the political will left to defend the programs they count on to feed or educate their families. When we can't even mention the poor in speeches, what happens when our leaders are forced to chose between Medicaid or more tax cuts for "middle class" families struggling to get by on $250,000? We all know the answer because we're seeing it.
As our leaders become more and more ashamed to talk about the poor, we're losing our moral core and abandoning some of America's hardest workers. It was (and is) the "tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free... the wretched refuse of teeming shores... the homeless" who made our country great. Yet you never hear our political leaders talking about any of those groups, let alone doing so as if they had any value. To listen to our political leaders talk today, you'd think the Statue of Liberty read: "Give me your privileged, your rich, your trust fund kids wanting a secure place to reside" (special thanks to Sojourners for providing the great graphic, which I encourage everyone to Like).
If Republicans can stand up and publicly fight for more tax payer handouts to oil companies, fewer regulations on the Wall Street banks, and tax breaks for trust fund kids who've never worked a day in their life, why are we so scared to openly say we're on the side of low-income Americans?
We need to stop accepting the right-wing myths that the poor are lazy. We need to stop thinking of low-income workers in terms of what they don't have. We need to start thinking (and talking) about them in terms of how hard they work and what they do contribute.
One of the best indications that you are poor in America today is that you're working two jobs. The average low income worker works 50 hours a week and more hours than wealthier Americans. It's hard work being poor in America. This isn't a group to be ashamed of. It's a group to be inspired by.
That is a message we can win with (click here for more TPs we've developed showing how). But more importantly, it's a message that will position us to do some good when we do win.