New Report Confirms Class Stagnation

Not that this comes as a surprise, exactly. Anybody who’s been paying attention knows that the American middle class has been losing ground for a quarter century because the wealth has all been moving to the top while the responsibility has been moving toward the bottom. But there are a couple of surprises in the Pew Research study released this week. The first is that the study was a collaboration between 5 different think tanks, three conservative, one liberal (the ratio you’d more or less expect to find), and one non-partisan – Pew, that led the study.

The initial surprise is that, overbalanced to the Right as the participants were, the study still managed to produce a realistic conclusion and didn’t futz with the numbers too much. Given that two of the participants, AEI and HF, have been spitting out bogus studies for decades designed to prove that either there is no poverty or that what minor poverty exists is entirely the fault of those lazy, good-for-nothing bums on welfare plus drunks and drug addicts, that’s no mean feat. Pew deserves major plaudits for, if nothing else, keeping those two frauds in check.

A second surprise – of sorts – was noted by black historian Henry Gates in an NYT op-ed.

LAST week, the Pew Research Center published the astonishing finding that 37 percent of African-Americans polled felt that ?blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race? because of a widening class divide. From Frederick Douglass to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the most fundamental assumption in the history of the black community has been that Americans of African descent, the descendants of the slaves, either because of shared culture or shared oppression, constitute ?a mighty race,? as Marcus Garvey often put it.

?By a ratio of 2 to 1,? the report says, ?blacks say that the values of poor and middle-class blacks have grown more dissimilar over the past decade. In contrast, most blacks say that the values of blacks and whites have grown more alike.?

Mr Gates may find that “astonishing”. Can’t say I do. It’s the standard result of the Class War. As people used to poverty and discrimination move away from those roots economically and in status, they tend to want to disavow their origins. They may even be ashamed of them. They are, after all, a constant reminder that as far as one rises, that’s how far one falls. Even those who have been rich for generations often deny their own history rather than admit that great-grandad began life as a horse thief or a lowly laborer.

Then there’s the common racial denial as upscale minorities begin to identify themselves as members of the dominant class and look down their noses at brothers and sisters unable to make the jump. Assuming the attitudes of the dominant culture means, in America at least, buying into the belief that the poor are subhuman, including the poor of your own ethnic or racial group. A hundred years ago, even if those members of a minority group who’d crossed the class divide felt contempt for those they left behind, they still felt it was their duty to reach down and give them a chance to cross over, too. But in today’s Me First-Fuck You culture driven by conservatives and corporations whose aim is to divide and conquer, that obligation has all but vanished. Now it’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost even if the hindmost is my brother.

The Good News is, of course, that the black middle class has integrated with the white middle class to a greater extent than anyone thought possible 50 years ago. The civil rights battles of the 60’s led by Martin, Bobby and a host of others, and finalized in law by that most unlikely of sources, a Southern president from Texas, have had the effect that was intended. Despite the slack-jawed modern contempt for political protests and community organizing, they broke the back of Jim Crow after 400 years of institutionalized racism and brought an end to segregation if not racism itself, which still thrives even if underground.

What does astonish me is Gates’ apparent cluelessness about the effects of class. Like a good little capitalist puppet, he looks into the backgrounds of successful black figures and concludes that the common element is…their ancestors owned property.

If there is a meaningful correlation between the success of accomplished African-Americans today and their ancestors? property ownership, we can only imagine how different black-white relations would be had ?40 acres and a mule? really been official government policy in the Reconstruction South.


The telltale fact is that the biggest gap in black prosperity isn?t in income, but in wealth. According to a study by the economist Edward N. Wolff, the median net worth of non-Hispanic black households in 2004 was only $11,800 ? less than 10 percent that of non-Hispanic white households, $118,300. Perhaps a bold and innovative approach to the problem of black poverty ? one floated during the Civil War but never fully put into practice ? would be to look at ways to turn tenants into homeowners. Sadly, in the wake of the subprime mortgage debacle, an enormous number of houses are being repossessed. But for the black poor, real progress may come only once they have an ownership stake in American society.

People who own property feel a sense of ownership in their future and their society. They study, save, work, strive and vote. And people trapped in a culture of tenancy do not.

And there you have it – the bogus Bushian concept of the “Ownership Society” in all its furtive glory applied to blacks by a black historian of black culture. Of all people, shouldn’t he know better? I mean, the signal that property ownership doesn’t mean all that much in the face of racism and classism is in the very “subprime mortgage debacle” he references. The main targets of the scam were the poor, the old, the sick, and minorities, preferably all four at once. “Home ownership”, whether getting or keeping, was the bait for the trap, the goat tied to a tree that entices starving villagers into rifle range to be slaughtered by their enemies.

Home ownership is not, of course, a Bad Thing. But neither is it the automatic panacea for racism and classism absent other criteria like economic and social justice. As a stepping stone out of poverty and/or inequality, it is in fact more or less useless without them. It may work, it may not. Its efficacy is determined by circumstances, not itself, the most important of which is probably social mobility – the openness of any society toward upward economic movement by the lower classes, and – as the WaPo’s Eugene Robinson wrote in yesterday’s column, that door now carries a “Closed” sign.

We’re not who we think we are.

The American self-image is suffused with the golden glow of opportunity. We think of the United States as a land of unlimited possibility, not so much a classless society but as a place where class is mutable — a place where brains, energy and ambition are what counts, not the circumstances of one’s birth. But three new studies suggest that Horatio Alger doesn’t live here anymore. 

The Economic Mobility Project, an ambitious research initiative led by the Pew Charitable Trusts, looked at the economic fortunes of a large group of families over time, comparing the income of parents in the late 1960s with the income of their children in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Here’s the finding that jumps out at me:

“The ‘rags to riches’ story is much more common in Hollywood than on Main Street. Only 6 percent of children born to parents with family income at the very bottom move to the very top.”

That’s right, just 6 percent of children born to parents who ranked in the bottom fifth of the sample, in terms of income, were able to bootstrap their way into the top fifth. Meanwhile, an incredible 42 percent of children born into that lowest quintile are still stuck at the bottom, having been unable to climb a single rung of the income ladder.

(emphasis added)

Those are the most miserable stats in the Western World. As Robinson correctly notes, even England, that supposed bastion of rigid class structure and economic stagnation, boasts better social mobility than the US. Our image of ourselves as a meritocracy that is blind to class distinctions has never been particularly accurate but it has at least been moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. Under Bushism and the rule of the corporatocracy, we are now, for the first time in our history, actually moving backwards: we’re more rigid today than yesterday, we’re less tolerant of people trying to better themselves than we were before, and we’ve deliberately erected extra roadblocks to prevent any such movement.

In that light, none of the results in this study are terribly surprising at all, let alone astonishing. We’ve known for two decades that wages have remained stagnant, that poverty has been increasing, that the nation’s wealth has been moving inexorably upward at the same time that more and more of the expenses have been dumped on the bottom. Just yesterday the NYT reported that in the wake of Katrina home insurance companies have shifted their entire structure to put more of the burden of paying for catastrophes on the homeowner even as they raised their rates, this despite a record profit of $$$44BILLION$$$ after $$$41B$$$ in payouts.

The message, Mr Gates, isn’t all that complicated. The rich have bought themselves an oligarchy where we make less and pay more while they make more – far more – and pay far less. Billionaire Warren Buffet has pointed out time and again that he pays a much lower percentage of taxes on his sizable income than his secretary does on her much much smaller one. John Edwards created the term “Two Americas” some 7 or 8 years ago to describe the class income disparity that now marks US society: an extremely rich upper crust and the struggling lower classes hanging on by their fingernails. The middle class is declining into poverty and the poor face starvation and homelessness every single day.

This is the vision for our country that the monied elite has always had and has been working toward since they bought the presidency for Ronald Reagan almost 30 years ago. All this study does is confirm what many of us have known for some time: they got what they wanted.

(Cross-posted at Matewan Chronicles)

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