How to Really Help the Middle Class

graphic describing the disappearing middle class.

Michael Quizon/Flickr

From Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

By David Madland

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election to be the next president of the United States, many pundits and politicians are focused on how rural Americans, especially those living in the Rust Belt, voted. Rust Belt states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which were presumed Democratic strongholds, went red this election, while voters in rural America overwhelmingly supported Mr. Trump.

This may be explained, in part, by these voters’ desire to give a sharp poke in the eye to the establishment figures of both major parties. The poke was needed. Wages have been largely stagnant for decades, and too many politicians are doing the bidding of rich elites instead of truly fighting for the middle class.

Dissatisfaction with the establishment wasn’t the only force at play in electing Mr. Trump, however. A troubling wave of white nationalist sentiment — encouraged by Mr. Trump’s many hostile remarks toward communities of color and immigrants — also played a powerful role.

Racist scapegoating must stop. In any case, it does nothing to improve the economic conditions of rural, working-class America.

A few of Mr. Trump’s economic positions do point in the right direction. He has correctly stated, for example, that the United States needs to invest in infrastructure, and that doing so will help the American middle class. However, what few details of Mr. Trump’s infrastructure proposal have been released indicate that he is more interested in helping Wall Street than Main Street. His plan shortchanges investment in bridges and schools in hard-hit communities and instead allows wealthy private investors to reap huge profits by charging high tolls on public roads and other infrastructure facilities, increasing costs on already-strapped families.

Mr. Trump is also correct that trade deals have given short shrift to American workers. But the effectiveness of his proposed response remains questionable. Rejecting similar new deals, vigorously enforcing trade laws when companies and countries cheat, and using the bully pulpit to question CEOs who move profitable companies overseas are fine, in general. But they will not bring factories back.

At best, these actions will slow off-shoring, but they may not even do that: Companies that Mr. Trump has targeted say they still plan to close factories and outsource. Similarly, the extreme tariffs that Mr. Trump supports won’t create new jobs. Instead, they will slow trade and damage, especially as they almost certainly would set off trade wars

The rest of Mr. Trump’s agenda is likely to be unambiguously bad — especially for the middle class. He has pledged to dismantle banking regulations, and thus make communities and individuals more vulnerable to another housing and financial crash. His tax plan would cut taxes for the rich by far more than President George W. Bush, while actually raising taxes for some middle-class households.

In addition, instead of working to strengthen unions, which is necessary to raise wages and reduce inequality, Mr. Trump is likely to seek to weaken them. This will only hurt workers and reduce wages even further.

Over the coming months, progressives have an important role to play pushing back on conservative proposals that likely would devastate the middle class. They must do more than play defense, though: They also must promote policies that would improve the lives of rural and working-class families across the country.

A real agenda for middle-class America would invest in infrastructure the right way, set trade rules that put U.S. workers on a more level playing field with workers elsewhere, promote labor unions and ensure high workplace standards — from the minimum wage, to overtime and paid leave.

A real agenda also would give workers a say on big corporate decisions by putting them on the boards of corporations, dramatically increasing access to high-quality apprenticeships and other training programs, and promoting broad-based profit-sharing so that, when companies do well, workers do, too. High-quality education — from pre-school through college — also must become available and affordable to all.

During the campaign, Mr. Trump promised to improve economic conditions and life prospects for Americans living in rural and Rust Belt communities. But it’s far more likely that his anticipated actions will hurt workers and middle-class families wherever they live.

Read more from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.