Both the left and the right talk about the health of the middle class as a key indicator of American prosperity, but they fail to give specifics on what that means.
If we were able to define those goals in a tangible way, i.e., minimum income, access to healthcare, etc., we’d be able to identify what’s stopping us from attaining them.
Let’s explore both where we want to be and what’s stopping us from getting there.
Anatomy of a healthy Middle Class
If we were to sit collectively and describe the attributes of a healthy country’s middle class, what would they be? I think we could easily agree on the following—regardless of our political affiliations:
Average, hard-working families would make a wage, with only one person working, that could support all of a family’s needs.
They could send their kids to college or trade school on that wage.
Healthcare would not be an issue. You pay into it (in whatever form) and there’s never any question that if someone in your family gets sick they’ll be taken care of. Bumps and bruises, lifetime debilitation—whatever. Everything would be covered without question.
There would be ample money for some amount of entertainment. Some cable television, the occasional movie, a modest yearly vacation, etc.
From a lifetime of work would come a decent retirement, with no threats of market crashes or having too little money to survive.
Basically, one of the parents in the household should be able to work at a job, and they would be able to support a happy family in return. Sounds downright American, doesn’t it? And if they worked extra hard, or were exceptional and were able to get promoted, that would result in more income and reward, but the basic worker, doing any job in America, would have at least these minimums.
Does this sound absurd? Does it sound unfair? Of course not. It sounds precisely like the America we’re supposed to have. And who would disagree with this sentiment? Would any moderate person of any party you know claim that this should not be the goal? That’s the power of this—it appeals to everyone I’ve shown it to: right, left, and independent. It isn’t just good for the middle class—it’s good for the upper classes as well. When the Middle Class is healthy, America is healthy.
It seems obvious that this is what every political representative should be aggressively pursuing during their time in office.
Obstacles to the obvious
Great, so what’s the problem? If we all agree that this should be the goal, then why can’t we achieve it? The answer is self-interest vs. caring about others. The answer is greed. The answer is that every attribute of a healthy Middle Class listed above is rendered impossible by our country’s prioritization of profit over people.
Let us count the ways:
We can’t have a wage that supports a family as described because that would cut into corporate profits. Companies making billions or millions would be making…fewer billions or millions. In our current corporate culture that equates to failure. It means the top leadership will be replaced due to poor performance. If wages go up to enable the middle class we want, millionaires and billionaires will make less money.
So if you can barely pay rent or have money for the occasional indulgence, how is a single salary supposed to pay for college or some sort of trade school for a family’s children? This is especially impossible given the current costs of education. And what’s driving that? Profit once again. It’s not about national infrastructure that guarantees America’s success in the future. No. It’s about each company individually making as much money as possible.If we paid enough for Americans to send their kids to school, millionaires and billionaires will make less money.
Healthcare, like many other efforts that should be disentangled from greed, is a business in this country. It’s a system with a single goal—to make more money for shareholders. And when they make less money (by helping too many people who’ve paid into the system) they’re considered less successful. It should therefore fail to surprise that our healthcare companies are enjoying record profits while health outcomes suffer and we have millions without coverage. If Americans are covered the way they should be, millionaires and billionaires will make less money.
It’s hard enough for families working two, three, or four jobs between them to make enough for rent, food, childcare, and other basics. What about going to the movies on occasion? How about toys for birthdays and Christmas? Where is that money coming from if they can’t afford essentials? If workers were paid enough to support basic entertainment after the essentials, millionaires and billionaires will make less money.
Rent is a struggle, entertainment is infrequent at best, and college is pretty much off the table. What about retirement? You’ve been saving away a sizable portion of your income for that, right? Not likely. And the company you worked for for so long? Are they helping? Nope, too expensive. They cancelled pensions long ago as part of this same shift away from what’s good for America and toward what’s good for the few. Let them try the stock market like everyone else, they say. If workers were given a decent retirement, millionaires and billionaires will make less money.
As you can see, none of the markers of a healthy middle class can be achieved in today’s America because they reduce the profits of the very rich. When challenged, supporters of this barbaric model immediately move to reductio ad absurdum by claiming the only alternative is to make no money, or to abolish capitalism altogether.
This is rubbish.
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A middle ground is both possible and obvious: we absolutely reward top performers with agressive salaries, higher bonuses, and rivers of perks and advantage. Incentivizing our hardest and brightest contributors is part of our country’s identity, and it is healthy regardless. But it should not come at the expense of a thriving core of everyone else. It’s 100% possible to maintain this balance, but the very top will have to do with a bit less, and that’s the part that’s proving unacceptable.
The starving forget to ask for food
We’re in bad shape. The single, unified American goal we should all be chanting for in chorus is the ability for a middle class family to live a quality life on one income so the other parent can stay home and raise their children. This, more than anything, defines American success.
But we can’t have that. Not only can we not have it, but we’re so rattled that we’ve forgotten that we should even be asking for it. This is because the building blocks of American happiness—health, education, retirement—have been turned into big business, and the goal of business is to maximize profits at all costs.
At all costs indeed.
One of those costs is nothing less than the health of America, and the ability for it to continue. American prosperity is being sold for the profit of very few, and our only chance as a republic is to remember who we are, and to place the priority of a healthy population above all else—including the pursuit of ever…more…money.
Capitalism, absolutely. Ambition, of course. Agressive rewards to the innovators and exceptionals—100%. But if we wish to recognize ourselves as Americans we must temper these things in the perspective of our true goal—a happy, thriving American people.
In every conversation you have about the future of this country, whether it’s about education, or wages, or retirement, or healthcare—keep this as the center topic. If the approach being proposed doesn’t take us in this direction, look elsewhere. And be mindful of who’s taking us toward or away from this goal. This, more than anything, will reveal true friends and foes.