EDITORIALS

Declining Wages: Who Cares?

Demonstrators pack the halls of the State House in Augusta on Tuesday protesting a budget proposal that cuts social services without considering raising taxes to save some programs.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Demonstrators pack the halls of the State House in Augusta on Tuesday protesting a budget proposal that cuts social services without considering raising taxes to save some programs.
Posted March 17, 2011, at 7:28 p.m.
Last modified March 18, 2011, at 2:24 a.m.

You may have read the joke making the rounds recently. One version puts it this way: A regular, hard-working, faithful taxpaying guy is sitting at a table with a corporate CEO and a union member. A dozen cookies sit in the middle of the table. The CEO gobbles down 11, then turns to the regular guy and says, “Watch out for that union guy. He wants your cookie.”

Depending on your political philosophy, you might either laugh ruefully or be angered by the joke. But the case can be made that political orientation shouldn’t influence one’s response to the underlying truth of the joke. That truth is that middle-class Americans have lost ground in earnings. At the same time, wealth in the top tier has grown tremendously.

While conservative, tea-party sympathizing middle-class Americans argue with liberal, “government-is-the-solution” middle-class Americans about their beliefs, the rich get richer and the middle class continues to earn less.

Each decade from 1830 to 1970, American wages, adjusted for inflation, increased. But that steady growth stalled. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has noted that women began streaming into the work force in the 1970s to offset that income stagnation, then the middle class began working longer hours and taking second jobs. Mr. Reich has written that “The income of a man in his 30s is now 12 percent below that of a man his age three decades ago.”

Another symptom: The wealth of the 400 richest Americans now equals the wealth of the lower 50 percent of Americans.

The solution is not “redistributing the wealth,” the button-pushing phrase conservatives invoke to make their case that liberals are poised to implement communism. Rather, the solution is to redistribute the tax burden to those who have benefited greatly under our system. And that increased tax burden for the wealthy should pay to give the middle class a boost with more generous tax incentives. They should be tied to such things as college loan payments, first-home purchases, day care, work-related education, weatherizing and upgrading home heating systems and buying more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Republicans have traditionally been the party of business, and they win over middle-class voters who will never own a business by persuading them that, as employees, they will benefit from a general prosperity. Democrats have traditionally appealed to workers, especially unionized workers, and they have championed programs that help the poor, the working poor, the elderly and children.

But the truth is, neither party has done much for the middle class in recent years. And that leads to some free political advice for both parties — whichever one can make the case that they care about the plight of the shrinking, beleaguered middle class can reap rewards in the next election.

The middle class is a key economic driver for this country as consumers, employees, innovators and entrepreneurs. Elected officials seem to have forgotten that and instead court wealthy donors and corporate players.

As long as the middle class remains divided, seeing themselves as either union-sympathizing liberals or tea-party patriots, the richest Americans ensure that their wealth continues to grow. If they united as a voting bloc, one can only imagine the changes that would be wrought.

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