Are Democrats Wrong to Focus on the Middle Class?

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Leading up to and following the State of the Union address, there is predictably a great deal of discussion about the middle class. Some, like Brookings, have considered whether “the American middle class [is] in need of government assistance.” Richard Reeves of Brookings cites very little in the way of data to answer that question, but he makes a viable political argument. He suggests that Democrats are using middle class-directed policy rhetoric even while knowing said changes are unlikely to receive bipartisan support.

“[President Barack Obama] wants people to know that he wants them — and that the Republicans don’t,” writes Reeves. He may not be wrong, but that doesn’t actually answer the question of whether or not the middle class needs government assistance. He points to the fact that these “households that may be far from rich … are also far from poor,” asking whether or not “the government now [has] to offer not only a safety net for those who fall on hard times, but also income support to the vast swath of non-rich households, on a near-permanent basis?”

However he misses a few key things. For one thing, while some of the changes would be specific to the middle class population, other suggested changes would help everyone from middle class families to families with two working spouses below the poverty line. The way some changes are set up, like the child care tax credit, would make little to no changes for poorer Americans. But other ideas are not so targeted. Some of his suggested tax reforms would offer some relief for families all the way from middle class to the very poor. They don’t only help the middle class.

During the SOTU, Obama once again made mention of equal pay for women, one of those measures that, while so far has found little success with Congress, would not only affect middle class, but would affect all Americans; it’s simply more likely that a struggling middle class family or individual worse off financially would benefit most from the chance to fight for paycheck fairness.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report, “A Profile of the Working Poor, 2012,” points out that the percentage of working poor “continued to be higher for women (7.9%) than for men (6.4%),” and that this statistic barely changed between 2011 and 2012. Education policy might help alleviate debt load for young middle class Americans, but it also helps to elevate those struggling to break into the middle class, given the report’s data on education and working poor correlation. “The likelihood of being classified as working poor diminishes as workers attain higher levels of education,” states the BLS report. It also points out that only 2.1% of college graduates who had been working for a minimum of 27 weeks fell into the working poor category.

What’s more, Obama really isn’t the only one pushing “middle class America” rhetoric; and Democrats aren’t the only party doing so either. Republican Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) brought up helping the middle class in the Republican SOTU rebuttal, mentioning job creation via the Keystone XL Pipeline and tax code simplification. She may not have used the same words, but one barely had to read between the lines to hear the suggestions. Jeb Bush’s 2016 PAC “Right to Rise” is heavily attached to helping the middle class, lamenting that “millions of our fellow citizens across the broad middle class feel as if the American Dream is now out of their reach.” And the fact of the matter is that while poor Americans, women, and minorities disproportionately tend to vote Democrat, this party appeal to the middle class is not a forgone conclusion. According to Pew Research, this “Democratic tilt” is “undercut by low participation.” And low participation, polling found, was far more likely to be seen in those who were financially insecure. Those struggling financially or concerned about making ends meet were less likely to take part in elections and show up to vote.

Which means that there’s a group of voters out there who could be mobilized by either party. If Democrats or Republicans gave them reason enough to do so, whether through policy or promises, two can play at the game Reeves is convinced Obama is playing. By addressing the middle class on ways to help them, Republicans could win votes, too. It’s an open battle at this point, one in which Republicans behind, but not one in which they’ll necessarily stay behind. This is especially true if they are able to be more convincing on alternatives that still appeal to struggling families, or prove their ideas more effective or more realistic, given time, than those across the aisle.

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