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Amy Traub

The Formerly Middle Class?

David Brooks feels your pain. He’s concerned about people who “achieved middle-class status at the tail end of the long boom, and then lost it. To them, the gap between where they are and where the used to be will seem wide and daunting.” In the economic downturn, these Americans face the loss of their homes, their jobs, their purchasing power, and even their social identities. Hearkening back to the nativism of the late 19th century, Brooks is concerned things could get ugly as the former middle class looks for someone to blame.

He may be right. I’m particularly concerned about a surge of anti-immigrant sentiment, as immigrant workers and their families have already been made into scapegoats for a host of social ills. But before we start getting anxious about reactionary social upheavals from the downwardly mobile former middle class, isn’t it worth asking if we can actually prevent much of the social and economic pain Brooks takes as a given? Can we save the middle class?

“Recessions breed pessimism,” Brooks insists. Clearly, the economic gloom has affected him already. But many of the rest of us haven’t given up yet on the hope and change – and yes, optimism – Americans voted for in the last election. While it’s very likely that the nation is already in recession, and it’s probably going to get worse, a shrinking middle class is not inevitable. Good leadership and good public policy, from improved and extended unemployment benefits to efficient stimulus, foreclosure prevention and smart public investments, can prevent Americans from falling out of the middle class. Let’s give that a chance before we get resigned to an age of “fear and diminished expectations.”

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Posted at 4:50 PM, Nov 18, 2008 in David Brooks critique | Economy
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