The Middle Class ‘American Dream’ Dies a Little More Every Day

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The new face of poverty in America?

By Glynn Wilson

When Hunter S. Thompson wrote about the death of the American Dream 40 years ago, he probably knew he was not only right, but onto something big. Too bad nobody much listened to the message of the Fear and Loathing series. Young people into drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll just loved it for the entertainment value.

Now a new report out from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the percentage of Americans who experience poverty first hand is not 10 percent of the population. It’s not 20 percent or 50 percent. Nearly 80 percent of American citizens live below the poverty line at least part of their lives. That’s one in five people in the U.S., and while minority populations feel the brunt of the trend especially hard, there are more white people living in poverty than politicians care to admit.

Much has been written over the past decade about the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the disappearance of the American middle class. It is a trend that has been growing over the past 40 years along with the “globalization” of the economy and the loss of manufacturing to cheaper labor markets overseas.

But now economic insecurity among whites is pervasive, with more than 76 percent living below the poverty line, being unemployed or surviving off Food Stamps for some periods before they turn 60. With all races included, the risk of economic insecurity is up to 79 percent. There is a growing class divide that could shake up the political system if people grasped the gravity of the situation and some politicians started talking about it in a meaningful way.

“It’s time that America comes to understand that many of the nation’s biggest disparities, from education and life expectancy to poverty, are increasingly due to economic class position,” said William Julius Wilson, a Harvard professor who specializes in race and poverty. He noted that despite continuing economic difficulties, minorities have more optimism about the future after Obama’s election, while struggling whites do not.

“There is the real possibility that white alienation will increase if steps are not taken to highlight and address inequality on a broad front,” Wilson said.

Nationally, the official count of people classified as “poor” remains stuck at a record high of 46.2 million, 15 percent of the population, mainly due to lingering high unemployment following the Bush Great Recession.

“While poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics are nearly three times higher, by absolute numbers the predominant face of the poor is white,” according to census numbers released to the Associated Press.

More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four. That’s a little more than 41 percent of the nation’s poor, a number that is double the number of poor African-Americans.

This so-called “invisible poor” is distributed out in the suburbs as well as small rural towns, where more than 60 percent of the poor are white. They tend to be concentrated in “Appalachia” in the East, but they are also all over in the industrial Midwest and spread across America’s heartland, from Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma up through the Great Plains.

In southwest Virginia, Buchanan County is among the nation’s most destitute based on median income, with poverty hovering at 24 percent. The county is mostly white, as are 99 percent of its poor. More than 90 percent of Buchanan County’s inhabitants are working-class whites who lack a college degree. Higher education long has been seen there as nonessential to land a job because well-paying mining jobs were the best jobs available. Now many residents get by on odd jobs and government checks.

Census figures provide an official measure of poverty, but they only take a snapshot of the total picture that doesn’t capture the full cycle of those who move in and out of poverty throughout their lives. They include the working poor, those who are only temporarily laid off and people living in the suburbs barely surviving on small businesses.

The risk of falling into poverty has been increasing for the past few decades, especially among people between the ages of 35-55. People between the ages of 35-45 had a 17 percent risk of encountering poverty between 1969 and 1989. But that risk jumped to 23 percent between 1989 and 2009. For those between the ages of 45-55, the risk of poverty jumped from 11.8 percent to 17.7 percent during the same time frames.

The Census estimates that, based on a continuing widening income inequality trend, by the year 2030, 85 percent of all working-age adults in the U.S. will experience bouts of poverty and economic insecurity.

“Poverty is no longer an issue of `them’, it’s an issue of `us’,” says Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who calculated the numbers. “Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event, rather than a fringe experience that just affects blacks and Hispanics, can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need.”

The numbers come from Rank’s analysis being published by the Oxford University Press next year.

Never have whites in the U.S. been so pessimistic about their futures, according to the General Social Survey, a biannual survey conducted at the University of Chicago. Just 45 percent of Americans say their family will have a good chance of improving their economic position based on the way things are.

The divide is especially evident among those whites who self-identify as working class. Forty-nine percent say they think their children will do better than them, compared with 67 percent of nonwhites who consider themselves working class, even though the economic plight of minorities tends to be worse.

Although they are a shrinking group, working-class whites – defined as those lacking a college degree – remain the biggest demographic bloc of the working-age population. In 2012, Election Day exit polls conducted for the AP and the television networks showed working-class whites made up 36 percent of the electorate, even with a notable drop in white voter turnout.

In November 2012, President Obama won the votes of just 36 percent of those noncollege whites, the worst performance of any Democratic nominee among that group since Republican Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide victory over Walter Mondale.

Some Democratic analysts have urged renewed efforts to bring working-class whites into the political fold, calling them a potential “decisive swing voter group” if minority and youth turnout level off in future elections.

“In 2016 GOP messaging will be far more focused on expressing concern for `the middle class’ and `average Americans,'” Andrew Levison and Ruy Teixeira wrote recently in The New Republic.

“They don’t trust big government, but it doesn’t mean they want no government,” says Republican pollster Ed Goeas, who agrees that working-class whites will remain an important electoral group. His research found that many of them would support anti-poverty programs if focused broadly on job training and infrastructure investment. “They feel that politicians are giving attention to other people and not them.”

Last week, President Obama pledged to help manufacturers bring jobs back to America and to create jobs in the energy sectors of wind and solar, the green jobs sector of the economy that is increasingly becoming the focus of environmental groups and labor unions in the BlueGreen Alliance. They say there is a path to a better future for the middle class if the country would simply embrace the changes needed to move away from the burning of fossil fuels and toward clean energy jobs.

“Focusing on manufacturing — and ensuring that we bring more manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. — and repairing America’s infrastructure are vital components of any real plan to rebuild America’s middle class and make our country as a whole more prosperous,” BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director David Foster said after President Obama’s speech in Galesburg, Illinois last week.

“The president’s call for repairing America’s crumbling infrastructure — our bridges and roads, communications networks, ports, transit, clean water, and other systems Americans rely on every day — should be answered immediately by Congress with swift action that will create jobs, make our systems more efficient and thereby reduce the carbon pollution driving climate change, and ensure our communities are safeguarded from the impacts of climate change,” Foster said. “By focusing on efficiency and innovation in manufacturing, the president continues to show true leadership to ensure a thriving manufacturing sector and middle class. His administration’s efforts will drive innovation and make our industry more energy efficient and competitive globally.”

Not enough has been accomplished in recent years because of the partisan divide in Congress, with Republicans blocking everything they can to try to gain a political advantage over the first African-American president in U.S. history.

While laying out his second-term agenda to address growing income inequality in the U.S., President Obama has been quick to note that the economy is “far stronger” than it was four years ago. But every jobs bill he has sent up to Capitol Hill has been shot down by the Republicans in the House.

“Americans are ready to repair America, and the president is leading the way,” Foster said. “It’s time for Congress to stop stalling American progress on jobs, climate change, and the environment, and instead take action to rebuild America’s middle class by repairing America.”


A subsistence fisherman in downtown Mobile, Alabama

© 2013 – 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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