In the News

Reinvigorating the Middle Class from the Ground Up
The Nation, December 7, 2010

By John Burbank

Movement building, racial justice, and a recalibration of the progressive movement’s relationship with President Obama is important, as Gara LaMarche and Deepak Bhargava argue, but it isn’t a framework for making progressive ideals a part of actual law, habit, and culture.

The roadmap toward economic security, opportunity, and quality of life must be much more specific – and it must begin and end with the middle class.

Regardless of actual income, over 90% of Americans think of themselves as middle class, upper-middle class, or lower-middle class. As occupants of the middle class, they are the object of an economic assault carried out via income polarization, declining wages and benefits, the hollowing out of public structures like public education, and shifting costs for health coverage and retirement income from corporations to individuals.

So how do we reinvigorate the middle class? First, by recognizing there is no grand shared vision, and there won’t be one for the foreseeable future. This isn’t the Great Depression, when people gathered around the radio to listen to FDR’s fireside chats as he steered the nation. In any case, most of what we want to accomplish won’t happen at the federal level. We have lost that arena.

Some thought we had it under Clinton – an era that looks positively like a panacea compared to now – but in reality, we made many more compromises with conservatism than actual progressive steps forward. We knew we were barred from real change under Bush, but we believed that Obama would open the doors wide. Of course, we now realize he hasn’t, and probably won’t.

So our task is not to follow or trust in President Obama, but to build around him by presenting progressive proposals that raise the bar of discussion and make it impossible for Democrats and the President to accept compromises that diminish middle class economic security.

The place to begin is in our “laboratories of democracy”: our states and cities. The issues to focus are job creation, education, and health care. Our proposals must be expansive and inclusive. As such they will produce disproportionate benefits for low income families. To establish and build political traction, they must not reinforce the separation of low-income people from the middle class. They must be discreet, do-able, and popular building blocks for a democratic narrative.

The policy proposals we create should be expansive, instead of targeting and reinforcing the separation of low-income and middle class interests – though they should produce disproportionate benefits for the former. And they must be couched in terms of a progressive values and a democratic narrative.

Think it’s an impossible task? Our cities and states already have a track record of victories utilizing this very strategy.

Before 1980, Congress regularly updated the minimum wage to keep up with inflation. After Reagan took office, this informal indexing came to a halt and the minimum wage stagnated. Under Clinton, Congress raised the minimum wage to $5.15 in 1997 (just 82% of its 1979 value), and there it sat for a decade. But states have the power to enact their own minimum wage standards, and in 1998 a coalition led by the Washington State Labor Council put together an initiative to the people to raise the minimum wage and automatically index it to inflation. The measure won overwhelmingly, and today, Washington has the best minimum wage in the country.

The victory helped catalyze other states to raise their minimum wage, and in Ohio, Oregon and Vermont, among others, to index it to inflation. Today, fourteen states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages higher than the current federal minimum. Almost one-third of American workers live in these states. That means approximately a million and a half workers directly benefit from higher minimum wages, as do another three and a half million with wages within one dollar of the minimum.  Now that is populist progressive progress – and it sets a standard for Congressional action after 2012 to tie an automatic cost-of-living adjustment to the federal minimum wage.

Thirty-three years ago, the Washington legislature created the Basic Health Plan to provide health coverage for workers and their families who didn’t qualify for Medicaid, but whose employers did not provide insurance. Threatened by diminishing public revenue in 2000, the Economic Opportunity Institute worked with local health organizations to develop an initiative to fund basic health by increasing cigarette taxes by 60 cents. It won overwhelmingly, and has enabled the ongoing funding of Basic Health.

Once again, this victory helped accelerate a nationwide trend, this time to add double-digit taxes on tobacco. Between 2000 and the present, forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have passed more than one hundred separate state cigarette tax increases. Of these, forty-eight have been at least 50 cents a pack. Taxing cigarettes is regressive, of course, but it is also the single most important tool for smoking cessation and public health and an important and popular source for the provision of health care.

 In the late 1940’s five states and Puerto Rico took up one part of the New Deal that didn’t make it through Congress:  Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI). TDI provides partial wage replacement for workers who are injured or ill off-the-job. In the 1980’s TDI expanded to include leave for pregnancy. Now more than twenty-eight million workers, a fifth of all workers, are protected by TDI.

In the 1990s’ a coalition of organizations tried, unsuccessfully, to get family leave insurance passed at the federal level. That failure led organizations to focus on the TDI states. California was the first to triumph, thanks in large part to the leadership of Netsy Firestein and the Labor Project for Working Families. Today, fourteen million Californian workers (women and men alike) are entitled to six weeks of paid family leave insurance upon the birth of a baby or the adoption of a child. Just two years ago the New Jersey legislature also enacted family leave insurance for its four million workers.   New York and Oregon are forging ahead with similar legislation. Here in Washington, a state without TDI, we have gotten the Legislature to pass family leave insurance policy into state law.

On other fronts, Montana voters just passed an initiative to lower interest limits on payday loans to 36% (down from the previous 500% “maximum”). Home health care workers and family home child care providers in California, Washington, and a host of other states have collective bargaining rights, thanks to the organizing and advocacy of SEIU, AFSCME, and other unions. California is slashing greenhouse gas emissions through job creation in renewable energy, building retrofits, transit, and infrastructure.  A wage ladder for early childhood educators is in place in Washington, and has been replicated in San Francisco.

Our cities are also ripe with policy opportunities.  In 2006, Young Workers United catalyzed a voters’ initiative to establish a minimum paid sick days standard in San Francisco – it garnered three out of every five votes. Voters in Milwaukee have approved paid sick days, as did the Washington DC City Council. In those cities, paid sick days are recognized as a legal workplace standard, right along with the minimum wage.

Implementation of federal health care reform means states will assume responsibility for designing platforms that promote universal coverage, including health care exchanges. For states with basic health programs, they may be able to create state-based public options by integrating basic health into these exchanges.

These won’t be easy tasks. The corporate community will fight against any measure that deepens our democratic tradition and rebuilds economic security and opportunity. They know that, once in place, these policies will be hard to take away. And they like the status quo and its polarization of income, wealth, privilege, and power.

We know these kinds of policy initiatives are winnable at the state and local level. We know we can take back political power and develop the political will for shared prosperity, expanded political participation and social democracy. And as we win each of these battles, enacting similar measures at the federal level becomes more of a real possibility.

That is a truly winnable path for moving forward, and building our commonwealth.