Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Case of the Missing Middle

(Let's see. Where was I before I took a little time off?)
For a variety of reasons, I just finished reading the wonderfully well-written biography of Henry Luce, "The Publisher" by historian Alan Brinkley. (And recommend it without any reservations!)
It's a great book with useful and important lessons about publishing, journalism, magazining--and America then and now.
And it's this last category that has me thinking.
One of the sources of Luce's success with Time and Life (in particular) was the rise of the middle class. Over a period of about four decades, the United States took shape as the middle class was created--and then, in turn, created America.
The middle class defined what it meant to be an American. What the aspirations of the average American were, what the values and habits were, the consuming patterns, the work styles, and even the shortcomings and failings.
Under Luce, Time produced newsreels, featuring what has since become an iconic (and much parodied) voice booming, "America goes to work!" or "America goes to war!" or "America thinks this or that!"
And back then, there was that kind of America--a kind of general consensus about what the country was, how it worked, what it stood for, where it was headed (with, of course, huge gaping holes in areas like racial equality, gender equality--things like that).
Luce and Time/Life could ride that wave, even help define and shape it.
Americans wanted to know what Americans thought; wanted to know what Americans looked like; wanted to know what it meant to be American. And Luce and his magazines could tell them.
In 2010, that's a tougher assignment.
There are more Americas.
And more narcissism. More interest in "me" than in "us."
But most significantly, we're witnessing the wholesale destruction of the middle class.
Over the last decade or so, the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer--and the middle class has been ripped to shreds.
Globalization has cost America a wealth of middle class jobs.
The economic melt-down of the last 2 years has cost more. And has taken away the equity that many middle-class families had struggled to build up over years.
The middle-class, the glue that used to keep the country together, is losing its hold.
I saw this same problem at the city level back in the 1970s in Portland, Oregon.
Portland then was at a tipping point: it had lots of older, poorer residents, and lots of younger, single residents. What it was fighting for were middle-income families with children--the people in the middle.
It's the people in the middle who hold the whole thing together. In Portland's case, if the middle went missing, moved to the suburbs, the city would lose its demographic center. And so we developed "the population strategy"--a series of government policies and initiatives designed to get the people in the middle to vote with their feet, to stay in the city, to turn their backs on the suburbs.
Today, America faces the same challenge--only on a national level.
We need to have policies and initiatives that rebuild and resurrect the middle class.
In the 1970s, government programs had to have environmental impact statements filed before they could move forward.
Today we need "middle class impact statements" for federal, state, and local government programs--analyses of the impact on the people in the middle of spending programs, tax programs, education programs--the gamut of policies and initiatives.
Because, very simply, if the middle goes missing, those who are left at either end of the socio-economic spectrum will be unable to keep things from imploding.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb