Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Decline of middle class not Obama's fault

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
September 5, 2012 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
 A union worker carries an American flag across the Brooklyn Bridge during a March for the Middle Class In June 2011.
A union worker carries an American flag across the Brooklyn Bridge during a March for the Middle Class In June 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson: Romney asking if you're better off than four years ago is wrong question
  • He says study shows middle class shrinking for 40 years, with smaller share of wage pie
  • LZ: In 1971, rich were 14% of U.S., 29% of income; in 2011: 20% of U.S., 46% income
  • LZ: If Romney wants to really do something for country, he'll have plan to address this trend

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and is a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs

(CNN) -- Are you better off today than you were four years ago?

With 26 consecutive months of job growth, it seems like the answer should be yes.

With an 8.2% unemployment rate, it's no wonder that in a recent Gallup poll, most said no.

This disconnect is the reason some Democrats -- meeting for their convention this week in North Carolina -- are having a hard time finding an answer with the right tone.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

It also explains why Mitt Romney and the Republicans love asking the question: Nuanced answers to what appears to be a simple yes or no question sounds like spin, and voters hate spin. More important, the question tricks the middle class into condensing all of their money problems into the three-plus years of the Obama administration.

I say "trick" because the truth is, the "better off" question does nothing to address the real reason why things are tight: Americans' wages haven't kept up with the cost of living for a good long time. And because of that, the middle class has been dying a slow death for the past 40 years, not four.

Romney likes to say that he is a financial whiz, so you have to know that this bit of information is not news to him. That he doesn't bother bringing up that trend when talking about the economy is yet another sign that he's more interested in winning the election than helping those less fortunate than himself.

Here's what I'm talking about:

Pew study: Middle class falling behind
Voters weigh in on Romney's speech
Presidential fight for the middle class

In its recent report, "The Lost Decade of the Middle Class," the Pew Research Center found that in 1971, 62% of the country's income was earned by the middle class, which at that time represented 61% of the population.

In 1991, the middle class took in 54% of the income and represented 56% of the country.

In 2011, the middle class represented 51% of the population, but its earning was down to 45%.

Opinion: What Democrats need to do in Charlotte

None of this would be a problem if the percentage of Americans who became rich was in line with the amount of money the rich were taking in. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In 1971, the rich represented 14% of the country and took in 29% of the income. In 2011, the rich represented 20% of the country but took in a whopping 46% of the money.

So Romney asking "are you better off today than you were four years ago" is a bit insulting; he's really just a rich guy preying on the emotions of a middle class in long decline. Maybe if he starts talking about the dramatic redistribution of wealth that's occurred since 1971 and the wage/inflation gap, I'll think differently.

And that gap? Over a 12-month period ending in December, wages went up 1.8%, while through October, the consumer price index was up 3.5%. This is not an anomaly, it's been the norm.

This is why Pew found that "85% of self-described middle-class adults say it is more difficult now than it was a decade ago for middle-class people to maintain their standard of living." We're working just as hard as in years past, but we're behind the 8-ball because for most of the country, wages are not even set to meet the cost of living.

Indeed, some of us are closer to being poor than middle class and don't know it. The 2011 middle class median income started at $39,418 for a family of three. Yet Pew found some families making less than $30,000 still self-identified as middle class, even though they're closer to the nation's bottom fifth, according to the U.S. Census.

How does this translate on the ground? The starting salary for K-12 teachers in 42 states is below the $39,418 bar of median middle class salaries. Beyond the basic necessities, such as food, housing and a car to get to work, many young teachers are paying back student loans. So if there's a young teacher with a family -- say in a state like Ohio, where the starting salary is $31,876 -- there's a good chance that person is poor, not middle class.

The starting salary for a New York firefighter is $43,074. Now, that may sound like a lot of money until you realize that "a New Yorker would have to make $123,322 a year to have the same standard of living as someone making $50,000 in Houston," according to the Center for an Urban Future. Depending on the neighborhood, full-time day care in New York can cost a family about $25,000 a year.

I don't know about you, but I think it's kind of messed up that our teachers and firemen, professionals that used to represent a legitimate middle class -- only a short time ago -- are living check to check.

That's not all about taxes and government.

It's not about Obamacare or a "war on the rich."

It's about a trend that has gone on under the radar for decades finally making its presence known.

Apple has worldwide sales of $16 billion. But a New York Times article this summer reported "about 30,000 of the 43,000 Apple employees in this country work in Apple Stores, as members of the service economy, and many of them earn about $25,000 a year." Meanwhile, it went on: "Last year, (CEO Tim Cook) received stock grants, which vest over a 10-year period, that at today's share price would be worth more than $570 million."

After much criticism, this summer, Apple gave all of its retail stores employees raises up to 25%, and last I checked, the company is still making a lot of money. In fact, both Obama and Romney acknowledge that big business is doing OK, remarks supported by Wall Street.

So why are so many of us still struggling?

"Are you better off today?" is not a question looking for a productive answer. It's a rallying cry for those opposed to the Obama administration -- an administration that has certainly made its share of economic mistakes but is hardly the reason why this generation is projected to make less money than the one before.

If Romney wants to show the nation that he is the truly the best man for the job and not just another candidate seeking it, he will start talking about ways to turn things around for the middle class.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT