October 6, 2006 Volume 107 Number 19

Think again

The ‘monkey in the middle’- class squeeze


“Being middle class these days is like being stuck in a game of ‘monkey in the middle,’ in which the rich get all the tax breaks and the poor get all the services, and we’re stuck between them playing by the rules and never getting our hands on the ball.”

That’s not a quote I heard from a focus group; it’s my composite summary of sentiments that I have gleaned from observations on the campaign trail this year. And, it’s a sentiment that has a lot to teach those of us who are struggling to reconnect working-family voters with candidates who will fight for their interests.

First, there’s the analysis of what troubles working families. If we get that right, we are more likely to fashion a political agenda that can appeal to the large majority of middle-class America.

It’s not so much the middle-class speed-up — that we’re working harder and smarter but getting less and less for our efforts. We’ve been using that analysis for years now, with little resonance.

Nor is it “the undeclared war against the middle class,” that subtitles Thom Hartmann’s new book and sets us up for competing charges of class warfare. Most working families don’t buy that analysis.

And only tangentially is it the loss of opportunity, although the sense that our children will have a harder time making it in the work world is closer to the core of today’s working family angst.

Rather, at the heart of that angst are the insecurity and resentment that come from a middle-class squeeze that I fear most working families perceive as the economic equivalent of “monkey in the middle.”

What’s most disturbing about this perception is its view of government — not just as an entity that is unable to make a positive difference in middle class lives, but as an agent that is making things worse.

We are used to blaming the anti-government right-wingers for a decades-long assault on government that has created the cynicism we now confront toward taxes and services. But we can’t continue to defend the indefensible, even if the right-wingers are to blame for it.

Our tax system is unfair, and many critical government services are unfairly limited to the working poor. Here are a few examples.

Three decades ago, businesses paid half the total taxes at the state and local level in Oregon. By 1990, the business share had fallen to a little over 40 percent. Now it’s about 25 percent.

Three decades ago, you could work your way through the University of Oregon by working at a minimum wage job full time during the summer and part time during the school year. Now you would have to work 48 hours a week year-round to cover a full year at the same university. The state’s financial aid for Oregon students is limited to those from families earning less than $33,000 a year.

Three decades ago, most jobs provided health insurance for working people and their children. Now the state is providing health insurance for one of every four children in Oregon, the most ever. But there are still another 117,000 children without any health coverage at all — and more than 90 percent of them are in working families. Most of those families earn more than $37,000 a year, which is the upper limit for kids in the Oregon Health Plan.

There was a telling exchange in the gubernatorial debate hosted by Oregon Public Broadcasting last week. Governor Ted Kulongoski argued that it was government’s responsibility to step in and provide health insurance for children when necessary. His challenger, Ron Saxton, argued that we should let the private sector solve that problem. “You give them (working families) better paying jobs,” said Saxton, “then we worry about those left over.”

“Those left over” nowadays are increasingly those with jobs, who can’t afford to pay more taxes and aren’t getting much help from their government. But would they vote for Kulongoski’s plan to raise the corporate minimum tax to fund Head Start and expand college aid to middle-income families? Would they support Kulongoski’s proposal to equalize Oregon’s tobacco taxes with those in Washington state to provide affordable health insurance options to the children of all working families?

Saxton says Kulongoski’s proposals make him a tax-and-spend politician. Kulongoski says Saxton is turning his back on working families. And middle class voters, like monkeys in the middle, are looking back and forth, trying to decide.

The key to success for Kulongoski and other pro-worker candidates in this election is to combine an appeal to class-based tax fairness with concrete proposals to provide much-needed help for hard-working middle class families — starting with education and health care first and foremost.

“Tax fairly, spend wisely” is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough. We need to tax fairly and spend wisely on the kinds of programs that can bolster working families and restore the middle class of this country. Politically, we cannot do one without the other. And, if we don’t do both, America’s middle class will become the leftovers.

(Disclosure: I am temporarily serving as a political adviser to the Kulongoski for Governor campaign.)

Tim Nesbitt is former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO.