THE UNDERMINING OF THE MIDDLE CLASS

ABSTRACT: Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a great speech recently in which she laid out how actions taken by corporations and related policy changes have undermined the middle and working class. She also spelled out what we need to do to change the rules of our economy so it works for everyone, not just the wealthiest. Up until the 1980s, our economy and the wages of the middle and working class grew together. But since the 1980s, all the growth of the economy has gone to the wealthiest 10%. Wages for the 90% of us with the lowest incomes have been flat, while our living expenses for housing, health care, and college have grown significantly.

This change in our economy, where all the benefits of growth go to the wealthiest 10%, represents a huge structural economic shift. It occurred because of cutting taxes; trade treaties; financial manipulation via leveraged buyouts and bankruptcies; minimum wage erosion with inflation; reductions in health care, unemployment, sick time, and overtime benefits; cutting of pensions and retiree benefits; and restrictions on employees’ rights to negotiate pay and working conditions as a group. Furthermore, corporations have been allowed to turn full-time employees into independent contractors or part-time workers who get no benefits and no job security.

These changes affect all workers, those in the private and public sectors, as well as both union and non-union employees. The changes were promoted by corporations and their lobbyists. Senator Warren states that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can make different choices and enact different policies that reflect different values. More on that next time.

FULL POST: Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a great speech recently in which she laid out how actions taken by corporations and related policy changes have undermined the middle and working class. She also spelled out what we need to do to change the rules of our economy so it works for everyone, not just the wealthiest. [1] She notes that up until the 1980s our economy and the wages of the middle and working class grew together. The rising tide of our growing economy did lift all boats. While the wealthiest 10% got more than their share of the growth (about 30%) in those years, the other 90% of us got 70% of the money generated by the growing economy.

But since the 1980s, all the growth of the economy has gone to the wealthiest 10%. The pay for Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of corporations was 30 times that of average workers in the 1980s; today it is 296 times that of workers. And in the last 25 years, corporate profits have doubled as a portion of our economy, while the portion going to workers has declined. [2]

Wages for the 90% of us with the lowest incomes have been flat, while our living expenses for housing, health care, and college have grown significantly. Mothers have gone to work and parents are working more hours but this has not been enough to maintain a middle class standard of living. It certainly looks like today’s young people will be the first generation in America to be worse off than their parents.

Since 1980, the wages of the wealthiest 1% have grown by 138% (adjusted for inflation) while wages for the 90% with the lowest wages have received only a 15% increase (less than half of one percent per year). Workers have not received the benefit of their increased productivity, as was the case up until 1980. Since 1980, productivity has increased 8 times faster than workers’ compensation. If the federal minimum wage had kept up with productivity, it would be $18.42 instead of $7.25. And if it had kept up with inflation since 1968, it would be $19.58. [3]

This change in our economy, where all the benefits of growth go to the wealthiest 10%, represents a huge structural economic shift. So how did the economy get rigged so the top 10% get all the rewards of economic growth?

In the 1980s, government was vilified by politicians who were supported by corporate money. The supposed evils of big government were used to argue for deregulation and cutting taxes. This turned Wall Street’s financial corporations and other large multi-national corporations loose to maximize profits with no holds barred. Furthermore, trade treaties allowed corporations to manufacture goods overseas and bring them back into the U.S. with low or no tariffs, few U.S. regulations, and no regulations on how foreign labor was paid or treated. In addition, the U.S. corporations were allowed to cut benefits and pay for U.S. employees, including by undermining workers’ bargaining power in multiple ways, and through financial manipulation via leveraged buyouts and bankruptcies, as well as changes in tax laws.

Middle class workers have been undermined by corporations moving (or threatening to move) their jobs overseas and by changes in state and federal laws. The minimum wage has been eroded by inflation; workplace safety and legal protections have been weakened; health care, unemployment, sick time, and overtime benefits have been reduced; restrictions on child labor have been lifted; and it has become harder to sue an employer for discrimination. Pensions and retiree health benefits have been cut or eliminated. Just 34 of the Fortune 500 list of the largest corporations offered traditional pensions to new workers in 2013, down from 251 in 1998. [4] And wage theft through failure to pay the minimum wage or overtime wages, or through manipulation of time cards and other means, has spread. Meanwhile, enforcement of labor laws has been weak.

Employees’ rights to negotiate pay and working conditions as a group have been restricted. In addition, the middle class has been hammered by labor laws that allow corporations to turn full-time employees into independent contractors or part-time workers who get no benefits and no job security.

These changes affect all workers, those in the private and public sectors, as well as union and non-union employees. The changes were promoted by corporations and their lobbyists, along with corporate-funded think tanks, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Restaurant Association, the National Association of Manufactures, and other business groups. These efforts were also advanced by corporate-funded advocacy organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Tax Reform, and Americans for Prosperity. [5]

Senator Warren states that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can make different choices and enact different policies that reflect different values. My next post will discuss those values and policies. In the meantime, I encourage you to listen to Warren’s speech (just 23 minutes while you’re doing something else) or to read the press release. (See footnote 1 for links to them.)

[1]     You can listen to and watch Warren’s 23 minute speech at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mY4uJJoQHEQ&noredirect=1. Or you can read the text in the press release her office put out at: http://www.warren.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=696.

[2]       Tankersley, J., 12/25/14, “Amid gain, middle class wages get no lift,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

[3]       Economic Policy Institute, 12/24/14, “The 10 most important econ charts of 2014 show ongoing looting by the top 1 percent,” The American Prospect

[4]       McFarland, B., 9/3/14, “Retirement in transition for the Fortune 500: 1998 to 2013,” Towers Watson (http://www.towerswatson.com/en/Insights/Newsletters/Americas/Insider/2014/retirement-in-transition-for-the-fortune-500-1998-to-2013)

[5]       Lafer, G., 10/31/13, “The legislative attack on American wages and labor standards, 2011-2012,” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/publication/attack-on-american-labor-standards/)

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2 comments

  1. Hazzard, Jane · · Reply

    She had an OP ED in the Post today. Supreme Court looking at the fair housing act.

    1. Jane, Thanks! It’s amazing that the Supreme Court has such a clear agenda in favor of the well-off and powerful. I guess the majority of them aren’t reading my blog! I’m glad that you are. Thanks for the comment. We need Elizabeth Warren on the Supreme Court!

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