The Vanishing Middle Class


I just listened to an excellent piece on NPR Saturday morning while driving to the grocery store.

The reporter was a young woman (or a young-sounding woman, at least – after all, it’s radio) who had got wind of a city in the southern U.S. where a suspiciously high percentage of the population was on Disability Assistance from the government. This is a relatively poor town with one main industry – a fish processing factory – plus the usual collection of fast food places, corner gas stations, and the like.

The reporter interviewed a number of people who were on Disability, and was struck by two things.

  1. Many of their injuries didn’t seem to be all that severe. She talked to a woman with chronic back pain, a man who had a neurological problem, which made his hands weak, etc. She found herself thinking, “I have back pain sometimes, and I work with a guy with a bad disk in his back. What’s the big deal?”
  2. One doctor’s name kept coming up over and over: “Dr. X told me I should go on Disability.” “It was Dr. X who signed the forms putting me on Disability.”

The reporter tried over and over to talk to Dr. X, but was repeatedly refused and/or told that he was out of the country. Finally, after several days of sitting in his waiting room, she got in to talk to the good doctor.

He immediately explained the trips overseas: he is working in Uganda to get a program up and running to provide medical care for poor people over there. This is a better-than-average excuse for being out of the country all the time. The reporter also discovered that Dr. X works closely with the poor in his city, too, and lives in a modest, mostly black neighborhood – one of very few whites in town to do so. To paraphrase the reporter, there was absolutely nothing about this guy that suggested, “Scam.”

So she asked him about the questions he asked of his patients, how he determined who should be on Disability. He explained that he asked them about their pain, of course, and whether it depended on the position of their limbs, whether they were sitting or standing, what their highest level of education was… Hang on, she thought – their highest level of education? What did that have to do with being disabled?

Dr. X looked at her and said that the legal definition of “disabled” includes the concept that one’s injury or illness prevents you from earning a living. How is someone with a 3rd-grade education supposed to earn a living with a bad back? It’s not like becoming a paralegal is an option.

So the reporter went back and talked to the people who were on Disability and asked them if they had considered getting a job where they didn’t have to lift heavy things, or work with their hands. To paraphrase her, “They looked at me as though I had asked, ‘Why didn’t you just become an astronaut?’” The man with the neurological damage to his hands asked, “What kind of job don’t use my hands? Every job I ever had was with my hands. I guess I could learn to squish grapes with my feet and make wine,” and he laughed (again, not an exact quote – I was driving, after all).

She asked the woman with the bad back whether she had considered getting a job where she could sit, rather than stand (which was what she had to do all day in the fish factory). Blank stare. So the reporter tried asking, “What would your dream job be like – one that you could do despite your back pain? One where you could sit and do your job?” The woman said she’d never heard of a job where you got to sit all day. A bit later, this woman came back to the reporter and said she’d thought about it for a while and had come up with an answer: she could be the person at the Disability office who decided who qualified for Disability and who didn’t. As the reporter pursued this further, she discovered that the woman didn’t want this job because she thought she’d be good at identifying cheats or anything; she wanted this job because it was the only job she had ever seen where someone got to sit down all day.

The reporter found this hard to believe. So she looked in the want ads and then drove around town looking at the places people might work. McDonalds, the fish factory, garage mechanic, KFC… Incredible as it may seem, every single job in town required, at a minimum, that you be on your feet all day.

This was an epiphany for the reporter, and it was for me, too. These people weren’t lazy scammers, colluding with a doctor to rip the rest of us off. They were honest, hard-working folks with extremely limited options. And being unable to support oneself through work does, indeed, require that you consider both the physical condition of the person and the types of work the person could reasonably do. I found myself agreeing with Dr. X: these people are disabled.

This concept reinforces a perspective that I’ve put forward before, and one on that I’d like to hear from others: Is the era of being able to earn a middle-class income by doing blue-collar work over? I realize that many of the people in this town represent those at the very bottom of the blue-collar ladder, but you can’t go more than two weeks without reading about the ever-shrinking middle class in America, and how the loss of blue-collar jobs is driving this phenomenon. We’re becoming a nation of haves and have-nots.

My question is: Is this, in fact, the norm? If you look throughout human history, the only period I know of when people could earn a pretty nice living through manual work was immediately following World War II, primarily in the United States. But the global economy following WWII was severely unbalanced; the U.S. controlled something like 40% of global GDP. It was a freak circumstance. So is the loss of good-paying blue-collar jobs a disaster resulting from economic developments of the past thirty years or so, or is it just a reversion to the mean? And in either case, what should we do about it? There are enormous benefits to having a healthy middle class in society. Can we maintain it? If so, how?

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