Read This: Can the middle class be saved?

Anyone concerned about the impact that long-term and short-term changes in the American economy are having on the working families that form the pillar of the American middle class should read the cover article in this month’s Atlantic monthly, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved”?

The article, by features editor Don Peck, provides a powerful and sobering look at how economic opportunity and financial security are increasingly out of reach for a growing segment of the American population. He argues that:

Arguably, the most important economic trend in the United States over the past couple of generations has been the ever more distinct sorting of Americans into winners and losers, and the slow hollowing-out of the middle class.

While Peck provides lots of data about widening income inequality and the ever-greater concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, his essay is most compelling in its focus on the fading fortunes of the majority of Americans who are without a college degree and who make up the ranks of the non-professional middle class.

The true center of American society has always been its nonprofessionals—high-school graduates who didn’t go on to get a bachelor’s degree make up 58 percent of the adult population. And as manufacturing jobs and semiskilled office positions disappear, much of this vast, nonprofessional middle class is drifting downward.

The loss of nonprofessional jobs has hit men especially hard: whereas in 1967, 97 percent of 30-to-50 year-old men with only a high school diploma were working, by 2010, just 76 percent of this population were (see our blog post on how the Great Recession hit men hardest). Job losses among the moderately educated are not only leading to financial strain on families, but are having profound social and cultural consequences. Citing the research of sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, Peck writes:

(A)mong “Middle Americans”—people with a high-school diploma but not a college degree—an array of signals of family dysfunction have begun to blink red. “The family lives of today’s moderately educated Americans,” which in the 1970s closely resembled those of college graduates, now “increasingly resemble those of high-school dropouts, too often burdened by financial stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children.”

Peck concludes his essay by presenting a range of proposals to revitalize the middle class, including renewed investment in research and development, support for vocational training, career ladders for service sector employees, expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and higher taxes on the wealthy. He recognizes that his proposals are not a panacea and are not without drawbacks. But he also reminds us of the threat of doing nothing: the erosion of the middle-class and the ever-growing economic, cultural and physical separation between the fortunate few and the struggling many. It is not an America most of would recognize or wish to see.

In addition to the Atlantic article, you can listen to a 30-minute interview with Don Peck by Rich Fisher for Studio Tulsa on KWGS, Tulsa’s NPR station.



Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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