July 28, 2013

David Rohde: No denying struggles of middle class

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Defying stereotypes, the Stanleys, who are black, were a more stable family than the Neumanns.

In one of the film's most wrenching scenes, Terry Neumann visits the house she lost to foreclosure, where she had expected to live out her American dream. The family that bought it at auction for $38,000 looks on as she tours the home, wondering what went wrong.

"The way the economy is going, no, I don't think anybody is going to be financially secure, truthfully," she tells Moyers near the end of the film. "And we'll just work until we collapse and keel over and die."

Recent studies have found that economic mobility is stagnating in the United States. Where one grows up and who one's parents are increasingly determine a child's economic future. And a smaller percentage of Americans escape poverty than their peers in other wealthy nations, including Canada, Germany, Japan, France and Australia.

On Wednesday, President Obama again vowed to change all that. In the first of what administration officials say will be a series of speeches about the middle class, Obama repeated a laundry list of economic proposals that are stalled in Congress. House Republicans, meanwhile, vowed to do everything in their power to block Obama and slash government spending.

Americans, understandably, are tuning out the noise. Washington's deadlock is likely to continue. Yet the problem is real and global.

Corak, the Canadian researcher, said workers like the Neumanns and Stanleys who lack college degrees or specialized skills are struggling across many industrialized nations. Shifting manufacturing jobs overseas to developing nations as well as sweeping technological change has led to stagnant middle class wages.

But a recent study he authored found that the dynamic played out differently in different nations. In Canada, more equal public education and health care systems, as well as the lack of a large housing bubble, helped mitigate the impact of globalization. In the United States, meanwhile, families more often struggled on their own.

Corak said the polarization of the U.S. inequality debate puzzled him. Yes, an individual's actions mattered, such as the Neumann's divorce. But global economic trends beyond each family's control affected them as well, as did the quality of public education and health care.

"You can still accept that families are very, very important," he said, "without rejecting the economic issues."

On balance, Obama's proposals will do more to aid struggling middle class families than those of far-right House Republicans. White House officials vow that this Obama drive to aid the middle class will be different.

For the sake of the Neumanns and Stanleys -- and millions of families like them -- let's hope they're right.

Maine native David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.


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