The Fate of America's Middle Class Hangs in the Balance

Barrington M. Salmon | 2/15/2012, 12:06 p.m.

During his State of the Union address to the joint houses of Congress in January, President Barack Obama placed himself squarely on the side of the middle class that has been decimated since the economic meltdown of 2008 and a lingering recession. He argued that the economic inequities must be redressed and called on the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share.

Census data released in 2010 illustrates the depth of the problem. Poverty has exploded, and a record 46.2 million people are counted in that category. But when the near-poor and new poor are added, the number of Americans who live in poverty approaches 150 million. Blacks, Hispanics, children and seniors have been hit particularly hard.

Poverty increased among all ethnic groups, except Asians, and the poverty rate for blacks stands at 27.4 percent and for Hispanics it's 26.6 percent. The poverty rate for whites currently stands at 8.5 percent.

"Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else - like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if you're serious about paying down our debt, we can't do both," Obama said.

The Republicans' response was to deride Obama's message and accuse him of fomenting class warfare.

"It is shameful for the president to use the State of the Union to divide us," said Mitt Romney, one of a handful of Republicans battling for the GOP presidential nomination. His remarks echoed similar comments made on the stump in Florida by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

But the real shame, said TV host and commentator Tavis Smiley is the millions of innocent Americans who played by the rules but who now have been left to fend for themselves in the wake of the economic meltdown and as a direct result of the greed and recklessness of corporations, banks and insurance companies who gambled with taxpayers' money and lost.

That gamble has translated into the dominant reality is homelessness, record unemployment, hunger, a scarcity of opportunities and the emergence of the new poor - consisting primarily of those who were once a part of the middle class.

"We are facing a critical time in our history that we cannot sidestep," said Smiley in a recent interview. "The time is now to get serious about eradicating poverty before poverty eradicates us. How is it possible to sleep at night when poverty in America is forcing our children to surrender their life chances before they know their life choices?"

The 1% and the rest of us

In the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, the length and breadth of the disparities between America's rich and poor has come into stark contrast. It is estimated that the top 1% of this nation's wealthy controls 40% of America's wealth, income and resources.

Life for middle-class and low-income Americans is characterized by chronic high unemployment affecting about 15 million people; a housing collapse triggering unprecedented numbers of foreclosures; lack of access to healthcare; and a host of other social and economic ills that has turned the American Dream into a veritable nightmare.