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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT