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Middle Class Squeeze

Candidates Stop Saying ‘Middle Class’

Instead of new rhetoric about the middle class, Presidential candidates should invent policies to save it.

Blogging Our Great Divide
May 15, 2015

by Betsy Wood

Presidential candidates are getting creative when it comes to describing the middle class, according to The New York Times.

Why? Because the middle class in America is shrinking. As a result, the term no longer connotes aspirational, feel-good emotions. Long associated with the American Dream, the phrase now conjures up anxiety about the future and a lifestyle that for many Americans has become unattainable.

After numerous conversations with voters, pollsters concluded that using the term “middle class” on the 2016 campaign trail would hurt more than help. Voters said the term makes them feel nervous because of the precarious nature of staying in the middle class.

For those of us who’ve been tracking the rise of America’s second Gilded Age, this isn’t at all surprising. Some 95% of income and wealth gains have gone to the top 1 percent over the past decade. And during the same period, average income for everyone else actually dropped.

Meanwhile, reduced taxes on the wealthy means that public goods have become less robust and of lower quality. Tickets into the middle class like public schools and higher education are waning in quality and, in the case of a college education, becoming unaffordable for ordinary people unless they go into massive debt.

Job growth since 2008 has been concentrated in low-wage jobs like retail and restaurant work, not in higher paying middle class jobs. In essence, that means anyone in the 99% could be facing having to take a low-wage job over no job at all. It also means unpredictable schedules, temp work, and/or contracted labor without benefits is a reality for more people. (In fact, the moniker “precarious labor” has been ascribed to this growing class of workers, underscoring the now commonly described feeling that at any given time one could fall out of the middle class – all it would take is for a temp job not to be renewed, hours to be reduced, or an unexpected expense or life event that isn’t compatible with a precarious workplace).

Political scientist Sarah Elwood said we have “no collective language” for talking about this condition, which has made the term “middle class” lose its resonance among voters.

So how are candidates responding?

By introducing new language that doesn’t evoke the anxiety of “middle class.”

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is using the term, “everyday Americans,” Scott Walker’s team has chosen “hard-working taxpayers,” Rand Paul is saying “people who work for the people who own businesses,” and Marco Rubio is calling them “the millions and millions of people who aren’t rich.”

The panoply of replacement terms among Presidential hopefuls shows that the candidates are talented linguistically. It shows they are attuned to emotions and how certain word choices might help them be more popular.

But these replacement terms aren’t going to fix anything.

With all the time and energy it takes to poll test rhetoric, the candidates should instead focus on creating new policies to save the middle class.

Instead of grasping for new language, they should be grasping for new solutions. They should also tell the truth (why is that so hard?) about what has happened to the middle class.

Ironically, they just might find that telling the truth is how they win the support of ordinary Americans, everyday Americans, hard-working taxpayers, and the millions and millions of Americans who aren’t rich.

Dr. Marjorie Wood is the managing editor of and a senior staff member of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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