Tom Campbell: The forgotten middle class
Once upon a time, in fact until 1980, the average worker could maintain a middle-class income laboring in our factories, building our homes and offices, nursing us to health and working in our companies.
They were the economic engine that built North Carolina and our nation, but the middle class is today neglected and forgotten.
From World War II until 1980, companies understood the moral obligation to share productivity and income gains with workers but the trickle-down theory isn’t trickling downward. In 1965, the average CEO earned 24.2 times as much as the average worker, but some sources report today’s CEO compensation as much as 531 times average worker earnings. The wealthiest 1 percent, earning a median income of $385,000, own more than the bottom 90 percent. The last time middle-class incomes increased was in the 1990s. Two-income families increased from 39 to 61 percent, and today’s average American works 300 hours longer each year than in 1979. The top 5 percent work 93 fewer hours.
Once upon a time, middle-class families understood the path to a better life for their children meant getting more education, but the cost of college has risen 140 percent since 1980, forcing many to either incur large debts or forgo college altogether. Only 47 percent of high scoring middle-income students are likely to complete a college education, while 74 percent of high-income students get their college degree.
Health care is another worry. In 1980, two-thirds of high school graduates got health insurance with their first job. Today it is just over 25 percent. Even health insurance for college graduates has dropped from 80 percent to 65 percent.
The rich are getting richer while the middle class is squeezed and shrinking. Middle-class dreams have become a nightmare. We are becoming a society of polar extremes between the rich and the poor. The middle class most frequently lost jobs during the recession, often finding replacement jobs with pay cuts averaging $600 in monthly salary and benefits, sometimes working two jobs to get by. To maintain their lifestyles, they went deeply into debt or reduced savings for retirement and are now largely dependent on Social Security and Medicare in their old age.
Financial pressures resulted in unhappiness, distrust and disengagement. In 1960, about 80 percent were married, but today that number is barely 50 percent. They are less involved with their communities, civic organizations, even their churches. Along with their dreams, the middle class lost their trust in politicians and corporations.
Once upon a time, both Democrats and Republicans fought for support from the middle class, but Democrats became advocates for the poor and disenfranchised while Republicans grew into the party for big business and the rich. This “silent majority” watched both parties cater to big money contributors and special interests. Curiously, the middle class votes in numbers sufficient to change their situation but they no longer have a political party or leaders advocating for them and feel too beaten up to rise up.
It is time to become champions for the middle class. Our state cannot thrive and prosper without a strong middle class, and history records what happens when their fears and anger grow too great.
Tom Campbell is the host of the public affairs program “NC Spin.” Visit www. ncspin.com for broadcast information.