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Amy Traub

Middle-Class Taskforce: The Proof is in the Policy

Eventually, the economy will start growing again. Really. Yet we can’t grow in the same way we had been: with a grossly disproportionate share of the economy’s gains going to a few of the nation’s wealthiest households while the current and aspiring middle-class max out credit cards and borrow against their homes to pay rising health care and college costs with wages that aren’t going up.

Vice President Joe Biden’s Middle-Class Taskforce is a high-level recognition that economic growth has increasingly left out middle-class American and let down those aspiring to the middle class. It’s an effort to make sure the next one doesn’t make the same omission.

For an organization that has focused on the current and aspiring middle class for years, that recognition alone is heartening. It may also be cosmetic. Talking about the middle class is good politics, since 80% of Americans think the phrase describes them. As always, the real proof will be in the policy.

The taskforce’s first substantive meeting took place just over a week ago in Philadelphia. With a full report now out, we can assess the first steps.

I'm on record calling the Employee Free Choice Act the first priority of any effort to rebuild the middle class in America. But it may have been politically smart for the taskforce to begin with the less controversial issue of green jobs, positions in the growing environmental sector that tend to be capable of supporting a middle-class standard of living. As the taskforce pointed out, positions weatherizing homes and building a new electric grid cannot be sent overseas. The meeting included (well-deserved) back-slapping for the stimulus funding that will promote green jobs.

But there were also interesting implications for further federal action. While nearly everyone agrees with green jobs in principle, actual policies to promote them can provoke controversy, especially once you get beyond doling out federal funds actually making demands on the private sector. Yet the taskforce report included recognition that “a public mandate to achieve an energy conservation goal” – such as a Renewable Electricity Standard – is needed to spur private-sector investment. Legislation to establish a federal Renewable Electricity Standard has already been introduced in the Senate. We’ll see how the first policy goal of the Middle-Class Taskforce pans out.

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Posted at 8:33 AM, Mar 10, 2009 in Energy & Environment | Middle-class squeeze | White House Middle-Class Task Force
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