03/25/2009 12:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Conservatives Can't Think Big About the Middle Class

Recently, in Minnesota, members of Vice President Biden's Middle-Class Task Force explained how the stimulus bill will create jobs, strengthen the safety net for the unemployed, and raise wages for middle-class families. So what did Michelle Bachmann, a conservative Congresswoman and blogger who's seldom silent about anything, have to say when the national conversation about working people came to her doorstep?

Not much.

Bachmann's lack of response echoes the larger conservative void when it comes to generating ideas that will improve the economic well-being of average Americans. How can struggling families attain or hold onto a middle-class standard of living: a job capable of supporting a family, a safe and stable home, access to health care, retirement security, time off for illness and major life events, opportunities to save for the future and the ability to provide a good education for their children? Earlier this month, in The National Review, Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru tried to provide their conservative colleagues with answers to that question and came up with yet another tired variation of the "more markets, less government" mantra that's dominated our political discourse for too long.

The middle class arose not from the inexorable workings of the free market, but because of government thinking big--enacting bold policies that, for example, gave veterans a shot at homeownership and a college education, created infrastructure like the federal highway system, and enabled working people to claim the benefits of economic growth. New Deal programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance offered some protection from old age, disability, and layoffs.

To rescue our middle class today, we need this big thinking again. We're coming off thirty years of free market ideology in which the economy grew and became more productive, but the living standard of the typical American family didn't rise in tandem. The middle class was seen as needing and wanting nothing more than a tax cut and the right to be left alone. As a result, working-age middle-class families actually lost economic ground in the most recent boom, missing more than $2,000 in real income. And those were the good times.

The Obama stimulus package is already starting to boost the middle class in ways that the unregulated market never will. But rebuilding the middle class will require more than economic recovery. As the Middle-Class Task Force acknowledges, "our policies must create the glue to reconnect the living standards of middle-class families to the economic growth they themselves are creating." I examine a few of these policies in a "Strengthened Middle Class," an essay in the new book Thinking Big: Progressive Ideas for a New Era.

Amy Traub is the director of research at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, where she directs research in a broad range of policy areas while working to advance the middle-class policy framework for which her organization has become known.