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Screwed: The Undeclared War Against The Middle-Class

May 9, 2009

Discussion Group Report

Screwed: The Undeclared War Against The Middle-Class1085

November 2006

By Bob Mayhew

You cannot be middle-class if you earn the minimum wage in America today says Thom Hartman, author of Screwed: The Undeclared War Against The Middle-Class.

The American dream and the American reality have collided. In America we have always said that if you hard and play by the rules you can take care of yourself and your family. But the minimum wage is just $5.15 per hour. With a 40-hour work week, that comes to a gross income of $9,888 per year. Nobody can support a family, own a home, buy health insurance, or retire decently on $9,888 per year!

What’s more, 30 million Americans, one in four U.S. workers, make less than $9 per hour, or just $17, 280 a year. That’s not a living wage either.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s statistics for 2004 show the official poverty rate at 12.7 percent of the population, which puts the number of people officially living in poverty in the United States at 37 million. For a family of four, the poverty threshold was listed as $19,307. If the head of that family of four were a single mother working full-time for the government-mandated minimum wages she couldn’t even rise above the government’s own definition of poverty.

Becoming middle-class in America today is like scaling a cliff. Most middle-class Americans are clinging to the edge with their fingernails, trying not to fall. In the 1950’s, middle-class families could live comfortably if just one parent worked. Today more than 60 percent of mothers with children under six are in the work force. Not only do both parents work but often at least one of those parents works two or more jobs.

Conservatives argue that we have to choose between having high wages and having low prices. They are wrong.

Take the case of Wal-Mart. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), Wal-Mart could pay each employee a dollar more per four if the company increased its prices by a half-penny per dollar. For example, a $2 pair of socks would then cost $2.01. This minimal increase would add up to $1800 annually for each employee.

I wouldn’t mind paying more for a pair of socks if it meant that my fellow Americans would bee able to pay for good health care. That would save me money because right now Wal-Mart’s uninsured employees run up hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills at emergency treatment centers when their problems often could have been solved more cheaply and with better results had they been caught earlier at a doctor’s office.

Here’s what all the talk about wages really comes down to: Would you rather pay 10% more at Wal-Mart and get 30 percent more in your paycheck, or would you rather have lower prices and an even lower paycheck? That’s the real choice: We are either spiraling up into a strong middle-class, or we’re spiraling down toward serfdom.

Looking at the arc of U.S. history, we discover we’ve been on a downward spiral ever since Ronald Reagan declared war on working people in 1981. Companies cut prices and then cut wages so they can still turn a hefty profit. Folks whose wages have been cut can’t afford to shop at midrange stores like Macy’s, so they have to go to low-wage discount stores like Wal-Mart. That drives more midrange stores out of business and increases pressure on discount stores to set their prices even lower. To compensate for lower prices, they lower wages so they can still turn a hefty profit. On and on it goes until the people working those jobs are no longer middle-class and have to work two or three jobs to survive.

Our choice is not between low prices at Wal-Mart and high prices at Wal-Mart. Its between low prices at Wal-Mart with lousy paychecks and no protection for labor, and the prices Wal-Mart had when Sam Walton ran the company and nearly everything was made in the United States and people had good union jobs and decent paychecks.

Today America is regressing; middle-class income has stopped growing. The net worth of those who earn less than $15,000 per year (which includes everybody from the working poor) to the highest end of the most well-off of the middle-class is down by 0.6 percent. The problem is not the economy. Corporations are making more money than ever. The real income of people whose net worth exceeds $100 million is doubling.

What’s happening is simple: The rich are getting richer and the entire spectrum of the middle-class is disappearing.

We can easily trace this decline to Reagan’s first public declaration of war on the middle-class when he went after the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981. He broke the back of the air-traffic controllers’ union and began the practice of using the Department of Labor traditionally the ally of workers against organized labor and working people.

Workplaces are not democracies “n the United States they’re run more like kingdoms. Employers have the power to hire and fire, to raise or lower wages, to change working conditions and job responsibilities, and to change hours and times and places. Workers have only the power to work or to not work (known as a strike.) The strike is a tool that can effectively be used only by organized labor is the only means by which workers can address the extreme imbalance of power in the workplace. And because organized labor is a democracy leadership is elected and strike decisions and contracts are voted on. Unions bring more democracy to America. We spend about half of our waking lives at work; at least we can have some democracy in the workplace, and a democracy means a strong middle-class.

The conservatives have almost succeeded in throttling American democracy by screwing over the middle-class. To fight back we must recognize and reclaim the government programs that create a middle-class:

  • Return to the American people our ownership of the military, the prison system, and the ballot box.
  • Fight for free and public education that encourages critical thinking, historical knowledge, and a love of learning in each child. Combat the No Child Left Behind Act and the belief that education is a commodity that can be tested.
  • Fight for a national single-payer health-care system based on Medicare.
  • Fight for Social Security and do not let it be privatized or co-opted
  • Fight for progressive taxation: reinstate a rate of 35 percent on corporations and a rate of 70 percent on the wealthiest 5% of Americans and use the money to pay back the Social Security system and to fund an economic investment program.
  • Fight for a living wage and for the right of labor to organize.
  • Fight for a national energy program that puts people and the planet, not Big Oil first.

When America has a strong middle-class, democracy will follow. The opposite is also true. To fight back, we must also make use of the ballot box. We can achieve the economic programs that make the middle-class possible by using the power of our democracy to vote for those politicians who support the middle-class. We’ve been conned for long enough. It is time to take back America.

–Bob Mayhew


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