Column, 297 words

The Rise and Fall of America’s Middle Class

The middle class was built by movements — and can be rebuilt by movements.

Jim Hightower

Ever since 1776, the “common yeoman” — America’s middle class — has been hailed as the virtuous heart and backbone of our nation.

How ironic, since it took 150 years before we actually created a broad middle class. Before the 1930s, most Americans were poor, or near poor.

And, yes, “created” is the correct term for how our middle class came to be. It was pushed by two historic forces of social transformation.

First, the devastation of the Great Depression created a grassroots rebellion of labor, farmers, and others against the careless moneyed class that caused the 1929 crash. These forces produced FDR and his New Deal of union rights, Social Security, and other tools that empowered ordinary Americans to begin rising up from poverty.

Second, the government’s national mobilization for World War II created an explosion of new jobs and opportunities for millions, opening people’s eyes, boosting confidence, and raising expectations.

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Striking workers in Gary, Indiana, 1919. (Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons)

A post-war rise in unionism, the passage of the GI Bill, a housing program, and other progressive actions led to a doubling of the median family income in only 30 years, creating a middle class that included nearly 60 percent of Americans by the late 1970s.

Then — phfffft — Washington’s commitment to a middle class suddenly fizzled.

In the 1980s, Reagan Republicans — and many Democrats — switched from supporting egalitarianism to backing the elitism of their corporate donors. Ever since, they’ve steadily disempowered workers and enthroned the rich, thus imposing today’s abominable, un-American culture of inequality across our land.

Just as progressives deliberately pushed public policies to create the middle class, so are today’s economic royalists deliberately pushing plutocratic policies to destroy it. That’s the momentous struggle that calls us to action in this political year.

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OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. He’s also the editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown. Distributed by OtherWords.org.