How America’s Middle Class Dug Its Own Grave

The U.S. Capitol is reflected in a fountain full of coins

America’s capitol upside down | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

During stretches of adversity, the natural inclination is to look anywhere for relief, or for blame. With the current and ongoing economic turbulence the country is experiencing, there has been a lot of both going around. Blame the bankers, the politicians, or even emerging economies on the other side of the planet — you’re bound to be accurate, at least partially.

The economy is immensely complex, and there are so many detailed factors that go into making society function at such a basic level that there is almost always a big business or individual that can be vilified. In that way, economics and politics are similar. While there may be satisfaction, and perhaps even factual accuracy in pointing out the shortcomings or faults of the establishment or large institutions, us individuals should also first take a look at our own behavior as well. No matter what we do, we’re still having an effect on the systems around us, whether in a passive or active role.

Much like we are all afforded a voice in the political process, individuals have the ability to make their intentions known in an economic sense as well. As consumers, individuals within the economy can use the free market as their soapbox, and use purchasing power as a dynamic force for change. A person’s formalized, authoritative form of communication is their money.

Each dollar they spend is a vote of sorts in favor of a specific enterprise. Each dollar signals that there is demand for certain goods or services, so the economy will seek to produce a supply of those goods and services to match that demand. In response, the economy will produce more of the particular goods individuals create demand for, and how people choose to spend their money influences the economy from the very micro level to the very macro.

This was expanded upon by Stony Field Farm CEO Gary Hirschburg, during a commencement address at the University of New Hampshire.

“It doesn’t matter where you set down a stake; it only matters that you contribute,” he said. “But don’t forget that as consumers, we wield enormous power to choose the polluting, consumptive and failed ways of the past or the renewable and sustainable ways of the future too. When we purchase anything, we are voting for the kind of communities, society and planet we want. And I have learned that corporations spend billions of dollars to tally those votes.”

An example of this idea in action is what is currently happening to fast food giant McDonald’s. The company has been under fire from critics for decades about its business practices and the quality of its product, and it appears that consumers may finally be putting their foot down by patronizing the restaurants’ rivals.

But its those same forces that allowed McDonald’s and other large-yet-maligned businesses, like Wal-Mart, to grow into the behemoths they are today. Though most people agree that the practices and products these businesses offer leave a lot to be desired, the benefits of patronizing them have outweighed the negative repercussions — in the form of cheaper goods and services, as well as jobs for millions.

Just as we can take responsibility for our actions within the economy, we can also do so on a national or local level within the political spectrum. In the eyes of most people, we are all just individuals with very little influence on what happens on a the macro-level. But by believing that everything was outside of our control — and therefore assuming that someone else will take responsibility to deal with any issues we’re facing — we’ve stripped ourselves of our own power. This, in effect, is how the American middle class has dug its own proverbial grave.

The right to vote — just like your right to make decisions regarding where you spend your money — gives each and every individual a fractional bit of influence on the system at large. Voting is a formalized, authoritative form of communication. A vote is an answer to a question — in many ways, it’s an instruction. When we vote for the president, the government is asking “Who should we put in charge of the country?” Whatever the people choose is the person who gets put in charge.

Nobody likes to be told they are responsible for a negative outcome, the American public has had a role in developing the economic troubles of the past few decades, particularly because we have had the opportunity to influence it the whole time. At the core of the issue, in politics, anyway, is voting. But it’s also the choices we make as consumers. Politics and economic issues are tightly interwoven, and much of our policy is dictated by those looking to influence the economy. As the main economic force in the country for the past fifty or sixty years, the middle class has had the most sway in dictating which way the tides will change.

It’s absolutely true that in many cases, there are nothing but rotten choices that we are faced with as consumers and voters. Part of the issue is that people aren’t willing to put in the extra effort — whether that be shopping at an independent, small business as opposed to a big box store as a consumer, or supporting and voting for a third-party candidate at the ballot box. It’s easier to stick with what we know, or what’s most convenient. But by doing so, we’re seeing the effects cascade down into a series of economic and social hardships that may have otherwise been averted by making smarter decisions.

As the median wage earners and largest population segment in the country, the middle class acts as a buffer of sorts between the rich and the poor. It’s hard to quantify just how much purchasing and political power the middle class does possess, but it’s been within the relatively large numbers of the middle class that have traditionally been the target area for most American earners. The thing is, if it weren’t for that economic buffer, there would be little stopping the poor and disadvantaged from engaging in massive protests and acts of civil unrest, all in an effort to bring more awareness to their strife, or to actually gain some relief.

One way we are seeing this barrier weakening is with the widening gulf in income equality. As the rich become richer and the poor gain little to no economic traction, protests — such as Occupy Wall Street — have swept over the entire country. While there may be things that many people disagree with when it came to the Occupy movement, the protest’s main focus was to call attention to increasing inequality, and they have plenty of evidence to back them up. The middle class has fallen further behind than at any point in the past 30 years, and increasing cuts to the social safety net have made things even more difficult for families on the ropes.

Despite all of the middle and lower class’ troubles, it’s the promise of a better future attained through hard work and education that keeps people more or less in line. This is an idea that we have dug into previously, to some degree. It’s the classic ‘carrot and stick’ approach.

For most of the population, earning and maintaining a middle-class lifestyle is what we have traditionally called the ‘American dream’. While there are others who strive for enormous amounts of financial wealth or power, the idea of owning a home, providing a comfortable life for their families and indulging in a handful of simple pleasures is more than enough to keep most people in line. Expanding the opportunity for others from less-advantaged situations is also something that is deeply-rooted in the American psyche, as improving the general welfare of all Americans tends to improve things across the board.

Another part of the American ethos is a sense of responsibility, and that is where the notion of using your economic and political influence, as an individual, comes into play. Each and every day, every individual has the opportunity to make choices and influence the state of the world, on a micro level, at least. By choosing to put in some extra effort or work — by changing your shopping habits, switching your diet, or any other number of things — your casting a vote in favor of switching up the status quo. Instead of blindly sitting by, without taking our own behaviors into account, why not take responsibility and use what power we do possess to try and catalyze the change we’d like to see?

It’s not easy to admit you’ve been wrong, or even accepting responsibility, at least on some level, for the current state of the country. Think the economy’s in the gutter? How are you having an effect on perpetuating, or alleviating the problem? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves, as citizens and consumers.

Most people may feel powerless, but the truth is that Americans of all socio-economic distinctions hold the power to change things. It’s simply a matter of recognizing it, and making the necessary adjustments to our behavior. The American public has become exceptional at voicing their grievances, but absolutely dreadful at following through on taking action to enact any kind of change.

There’s two primary ways to do that, with your wallet, and with your votes. Making the effort to use those effectively could make the difference that the middle and lower classes have been hoping for.

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