Tuesday, September 04, 2012

That's Not Whining...

Here’s an article that I think is not wrong, but misses the point rather badly. That is, Kimberly Stiens is certainly correct in pointing out that a single college-graduate 20-something earning more than $30 thousand per year (with healthcare and paid vacation) doing work they care about probably shouldn’t be whining about how poor they are… especially not while they’re knocking back their second $8 cocktail in a trendy DC bar. And we should all be mindful that literally billions of people around the world would not only trade places with almost any American, but would walk across broken glass to do so. Most of us in the U.S. — including even most of the least fortunate among us — are vastly better off than huge percentages of our fellow humans, and we should be grateful for that.

But does that mean that worries about the middle class are misplaced, as Stiens suggests? That we should all join her in being “sick of hearing about the trials and tribulations of the middle class”? I don’t think so, for a number of reasons.

First, I think it’s a bit of a strawman. I haven’t been spending a lot of time clubbing with ambitious, privileged recent graduates in DC — maybe my daughter, who has just started as a George Washington University graduate student will be able to provide me some field intel on the question — but in terms of the political discourse around the plight of the middle class, what I’ve been hearing was really not been primarily privileged youths whining that they’re not even more privileged. Instead, the discussion has been about the increasingly great number of people who are falling out of that privileged group, and the increasingly fewer numbers of college graduates who can count on joining it. Stiens’ own article admits that the middle class is shrinking, and points out that she was far more confident about her future when she enrolled in college (in 2004) than she was four years later when she graduated. Those are important facts, and they’re not rendered less important by the fact that some young adults can still afford to go out drinking. We ignore the shrinking of the middle class, and a whole generation’s loss of confidence in its future, at our peril.

Second, I think Stiens is a bit naïve about how deep or durable her privilege is. She’s young, and presumably healthy, and as yet has (as far as we can tell from the essay) no spouse/partner, children, elderly parents, etc., depending upon her to provide some or all of their support: When she happily announces that her job provides healthcare coverage, she doesn’t mention how good it is, nor what her share of the premium is, nor what her share of the premium will be once she needs to change her coverage to “Employee + Spouse” or “Employee + Family.”

There’s no doubt that having employer-subsidized health insurance is a privilege, compared to those living in poverty, but she may be surprised, when the time comes, to learn how much less of a privilege it is for her than it was for her parents’ generation. She might also be surprised to learn how many of her putative socioeconomic peers — people who are otherwise middle class — are uninsured or underinsured. I also note that her listing of employer-provided benefits includes paid vacation in addition to health insurance, but not paid sick time or a pension plan. Perhaps she just didn’t mention the former, because it seems to go without saying (except that for too many, it really doesn’t), but I’m guessing she doesn’t have a pension plan: Most new hires don’t, these days. If they’re lucky, they get some sort of tax-deferred savings plan (401k or equivalent), to which the employer maybe contributes a little bit, but for most working people under about 50, the traditional defined-benefit pension is giving way to market-based accounts that carry no guarantee of retirement income, or to nothing at all. To a single 25 year old, it probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the middle class has not only shrunk, it’s also gotten less secure — shall we say, thinner — in ways that will matter to Stiens someday, even if she can’t see it yet.

Does that mean she should join her whiny acquaintances and start complaining? Of course not. She’s not wrong to think she’s privileged. I’m privileged, too. But the fact that some of us — perhaps many of us — are still living what can only fairly be called a good life doesn’t mean the shrinking, thinning middle class isn’t a social problem, and a harbinger of even greater problems looming before us. It's a problem not only for the middle class itself; it's also a problem for all the segments of our economy that depend on a thriving middle class that feels secure enough to spend its "disposable" income... including those who really are poor, and whose minimum-wage jobs depend on a thriving consumer economy.

It’s a problem that arises from public policy, and one that can only be solved through public policy, and talking about it isn't "whining"; it's citizenship.

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