New book probes the unraveling of the American dream

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Working hard, playing by the rules and getting a college education are not necessarily paths to a good-paying job, home ownership and a decent retirement.

Until a Missouri congressman caused a furor this week over abortion politics, it appeared that President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney would use their campaigns to peddle their elixirs for jolting the stagnant U.S. economy.

While the fallout over U.S. Rep. Todd Akin’s rape and abortion comments spreads to the Republican National Convention, it’s still likely that the final weeks of the presidential race will focus on the economic insecurity felt by many Americans.

That’s why two veteran investigative journalists had perfect timing this summer with the publication of their book, “The Betrayal of the American Dream.”

Authors Donald Barlett and James Steele, who’ve been a reporting duo since 1971, are highly critical of wealthy individuals and big corporations that have tremendous influence in Washington. They contend monied interests have shaped public policy to their advantage and to the financial detriment of the middle class.

But whether one thinks the authors are rightly or wrongly engaged in class warfare, one cannot deny that it’s become tougher to achieve the American dream in 2012 than it was in earlier decades.

Working hard, playing by the rules and getting a college education are not necessarily paths to a good-paying job, home ownership and a decent retirement.

Pew study on middle class

That reality was chronicled by the Pew Research Center in a report released Wednesday called “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class.”

Pew found the portion of Americans who are in the middle class dropped from 61 percent in 1971 to 51 percent in 2011. Over the past decade, Pew characterized the erosion of middle-class jobs as the “hollowing of the middle” in the United States.

Americans are suffering from persistently high unemployment, college student loan debt has reached staggering levels, and well-paying jobs are hard to come by.

Many Americans who have jobs will need to work past 65 because their 401 (k) accounts aren’t large enough to cover their basic needs in retirement. It is becoming increasingly rare for American workers to enjoy the security of defined-benefit pension plans, which used to be a mainstay for employees with long tenure at private companies.

Barlett and Steele spent considerable time interviewing people who are the economic casualties of the modern economy.

The Betrayal of the American DreamThey concluded: “Most of the changes essential to restoring the American middle class require congressional support, but Congress has largely been on a thirty-year holiday from economic reality — at least as far as the middle class is concerned.”

Barlett and Steele, who built their careers at the Philadelphia Inquirer and later worked for TIME magazine and Vanity Fair, are particularly disturbed that American society seems to be “built on the economic principle that the lowest price [product] is all that matters.” They are more concerned about Americans earning a living wage.

They argue that middle-class Americans must exercise the power they have by bothering to vote in key elections. They wrote that those middle-class voters “must put their own economic survival above partisan loyalties” and learn where the candidates stand on four major issues.

Their four bedrock questions are:

1. Will you support tax reform that restores fairness to personal and corporate tax rates?

2. Will you support U.S. manufacturing and other sectors of the economy by working for a more balanced trade policy?

3. Will you support government investment in essential infrastructure that helps business and creates jobs?

4. Will you help keep the benefits of U.S. innovation within the United States and work to prevent those benefits from being outsourced?

Presidential debates and economic topics

Citizens will get the chance to pose these and other questions at a town hall forum presidential debate on Oct. 16. The Commission on Presidential Debates recently announced that the people who get to take part in that session will be undecided voters chosen by the Gallup polling organization.

CNN reporter and anchor Candy Crowley will dig deeper on the critical economic topics on Oct. 16 as she moderates the presidential debate at Hofstra University.

There will be only one other opportunity to see Obama and former Gov. Romney face off on economic recovery, which is the defining issue of the campaign. PBS host Jim Lehrer will moderate the Oct. 3 debate on domestic issues.

The final debate before the election, scheduled for Oct. 22, will focus exclusively on foreign policy.

Many middle-class Americans are clearly struggling. The Pew report shows that median income and net worth have fallen in middle-income households in the past few years. In a Pew survey, 85 percent of middle-class Americans indicated “it is more difficult now than it was a decade ago for middle-class people to maintain their standard of living.”

In theory, these middle-class woes should serve to stimulate voter turnout in November.

In the 2008 presidential election, Minnesota had the highest voter turnout at 77.8 percent. Tragically, only 61.6 percent of eligible American voters took the time to cast ballots.

The world truly is run by those who show up, and this year Barlett and Steele are hoping that middle-class voters flex their muscles at the polls rather than shrugging their shoulders in disgust and standing on the sidelines.

Fedor can be reached at lfedor@minnpost.com.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/23/2012 - 10:31 am.

    The Congressional holiday

    …has been longer than 30 years. My standard of living was no greater, and the buying power of my income no greater, at the end of my working career than it was at the beginning. The numbers had changed, of course, but they changed on both the income and the outlay sides of the equation. My son and daughter-in-law are finding much the same phenomenon exists for them. Finding jobs that pay a living wage is far more difficult than it was a generation ago, and in an “employment-at-will” state like Minnesota, there’s truly no such thing as meaningful employment security, which is precisely what right wing corporate apologists drool over. Workers have no bargaining leverage unless they’re part of the dramatically-smaller portion of the labor force that’s unionized, and even then, employers simply provide a “take it or leave it” offer, accompanied by the threat of moving the entire operation overseas if workers object. The bargaining table currently tilts very heavily in favor of employers in most cases, with state and municipal workers sometimes being among the rare exceptions.

    The possibility of self-defeating protectionism will, once again, rear its ugly head in regard to the authors’ questions 2 and 4, but at the same time, something needs to be done in that area beyond rewarding CEOs with million-dollar payoffs for sending jobs from the U.S. to the Far East or Latin America, destroying whole communities in the process. Not only does the economy stumble when the middle class disappears, there are strong arguments suggesting that democracy itself doesn’t work very well unless there’s a strong middle class to support it.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/23/2012 - 11:12 am.

    Just what we need right now…

    Another “How to fail” manual from whiny, gloom-and-doom, woe-is-you leftists. It’s almost like they’re stuck in a Jimmy Carter time warp.

    1/2 of me is happy to step over their weeping, soggy forms laying prostrate on the sidewalk, but my sense of morality demands I do what I can to throw cold water on purveyors of wretchedness like Barlett, Steele, Jesse Jackson, Barbara Ehrenreich & their ilk .

    Get up off the couch people.

    Do whatever it takes to meet the future with your head held high. Teach your kids that they are every bit as capable as anyone else. And *whatever* else you do, keep pandering politicians of any party as far away from you as possible.

    Get a grip….sheesh.

  3. Submitted by John Edwards on 08/23/2012 - 12:00 pm.

    4 Worthless questions

    Will anyone answer the loaded questions with anything but yes? The first question requires someone to be against “fairness.” The more obvious issue is what is fair? The other questions should be reworded to ask how much more the respondent personally is willing to pay for products and services generated in the U.S. that can be more cheaply supplied from overseas. We already know the answer to that: obviously no one.

    Question 3 is a beaut: will you “support” government investment (that is spending to most people)? A better question is what increased tax rate the respondent personally is willing to pay.

  4. Submitted by Mike Downing on 08/23/2012 - 01:48 pm.

    The American Dream is Alive & Well for any child who fully takes advantage of their educational opportunities and fully utilize their God given talents and skills.

    Yes, the American Dream is no longer available for those who chose not to take full advantage of their educational opportunities in this complex and highly technical global economy. That unfortunately is an example of a poor choice and these individuals must live with the consequences of these poor choices or overcome a previous poor choice by embracing education and become a life long learner.

  5. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 08/23/2012 - 04:44 pm.

    loaded questions

    What IS fair? Most of us can see that when someone makes $15 million and pays little in taxes–say 13%–and another person in the same city makes $50000 and pays 25%–that’s unfair. most of us realize that when we have a whole group of people in the U.S. who are homeless and starving, including children, and another group has cornered 40% of the wealth of the U.S.–no one can say that’s fair. There are ways of determining fairness. Ask a child; they have a keen sense of fairness.
    As for your “beaut”: you responded with a loaded question. How about — how much are you willing to pay to know that you can drive over a bridge without falling in? How much are you willing to pay to know you are not drinking sewage? How much are you willing to pay for transcontinental communication so that you and others can talk to people overseas? How much is it worth to you that your children are not crowded into rotting, moldy decrepit schools with inadequate textbooks?

    Most of us human beings are aware that we have to pay something for all the things we take for granted in our modern life. Are you ever, when you look at the TV news and see people trying to get clean water GRATEFUL that you don’t even have to think about it? Are you ever GRATEFUL that you have an adequate food supply and some choices? Or that you can go to school or your children can go to school–even the girls–with relative ease?
    Try a little GRATITUDE. It’s good for your soul

  6. Submitted by Pete Barrett on 08/23/2012 - 06:23 pm.

    Not A Real Choice

    What are voters to do if politicians in both parties largely have the same answers, varying only slightly by degree? There is no daylight between the two parties when it comes to free trade agreements and there hasn’t been for twenty years. The supposedly socialist Obama who I’m told wants to trash the free enterprise system is negotiating an FTA by including corporate lobbyists but no one in Congress is privy to the deal. Some socialist.

    Republicans try to strangle whats left of unions, Democrats say “tsk tsk” but don’t lift a finger to help. Its as if both parties are funded by corporate money. Oh yeah, they are.

  7. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 08/23/2012 - 06:41 pm.

    Reaganomics, i.e. “trickle down economics”, i.e. “voodoo economics” has been a disaster for this country for the last 30 years.

    Coincidence that it parallels the decline of the middle class? And the explosion in money going those at the top? And the skyrocketing of deficits and the National Debt?

  8. Submitted by Hubert Murdock on 08/23/2012 - 09:33 pm.

    Class Warfare

    Every time someone accuses the poor and middle class of initiating “class warfare” when they point out the inequalities of our current economic situation, I feel the need to point out that “class warfare” was started 30 years ago by the GOP with their deregulation and trickle down theories. I used to vote conservative, but now I think the Republican party is doomed by their pandering to extremist factions and fundamentalists. I hardly believe the democratic party has the right answers, but they seem to be the lesser of the two evils right now. I want another party that represents common sense and logic. I might have to wait a long time.
    If the wealthy were the super patriots that the conservatives were painting them as, they would be a little more genuinely concerned about our nations future instead of lining their pockets. I have met some wealthy people who are smart and generous, and I have met some who were just really good at being greedy. I think we now have more of the latter than the former.

Leave a Reply