Recently, in conversations with hard-working members of the American middle class, I’ve been surprised by my own dismay at hearing their arguments against social programs aimed at the “lower class,” particularly a raised minimum wage and government entitlements like unemployment benefits, food stamps, and Medicaid.
These arguments are nothing new to me: I grew up in a well-off, conservative suburb of Denver, a blue household in a sea of red (perhaps more white-collar than blue-collar, but the arguments still prevailed). But I’ve spent most of the past five years either at school in Burlington, Vermont or working for nonprofits in New York City. I’ve grown into an activist (and slacktivist) unquestioningly in favor of most public programs aimed at poverty alleviation. But these views have matured on a cushion of validation, either from fellow liberal students, professors, and colleagues or from the “lower-class” wage workers, immigrants, and homeless people with whom I have advocated.
So these latest critiques of my views by self-identifying members of “the hard-working middle class”—usually on the basis that I was over-valuing “burger-flippers,” undervaluing “real jobs,” incentivizing laziness, or some other derivative of advocating socialism—made me realize how long I’ve been preaching to the choir, a choir with a conspicuous lacking of middle class workers.
Participating in workers’ rights movements, I believed I was gaining a pro-labor perspective applicable to all “working-class” Americans, lower or middle. All the while, I was aware that many workers held a different perspective, opposed to social programs resembling “socialism,” but I regarded this perspective’s proponents as an exploited or brainwashed militia of corporate conservative interests. I never really thought to ask these proponents what their personal concerns were about poverty alleviation programs, about why they felt the way they did.
Writing this piece is my attempt to reconfigure my politics with respect for the concerns of the hard-working middle class, specifically those who identify as conservatives or promote views associated with conservatism. In doing so, my support of a raised minimum wage, government entitlements, and other forms of poverty alleviation will not waver; but my arguments in favor of these programs, and my beliefs about the formation of appropriate public policy, will put the concerns of middle-class workers front and center. I encourage all liberals to do the same, for the reputation, implementation, and success of the policies they advocate.
I also ask that conservatives not consider this writer an exemplary liberal: I am steeped in uncommon privilege and actively trying to overcome my residual prejudices and my inflated sense of social progress and possibility. Many if not most liberals are also members of the hard-working middle class, and their views are born from the very same concerns as most conservatives’.
If liberals (uncommonly privileged or otherwise) are going to philosophize, organize, or legislate with respect to the lower class, they must begin with a respect for the concerns of the middle class.
Hard working Americans have every right to worry about government entitlements and a raised minimum wage. Why? Because they are struggling: they work hard to earn never quite enough. Of course they deserve to be fairly rewarded, with a wage that reflects the difficulty of their work and low enough taxes to make that wage worth something. Simply put, the middle class deserves to work with dignity.
So, as many middle-class workers reasonably argue, why reward those who don’t work, or who work in “low-skill” jobs, or whose bad life choices have made them and their families “charges of the state”? People deserve the life they work for and should not be forced to sacrifice their wellbeing for those who work less or not at all.
Liberals must accept these as legitimate concerns and understand that many middle-class workers feel economically vulnerable and threatened by the prospect of pumping more money into the economy’s lowest rungs. When explaining—and, of course, when implementing—programs that appear geared towards the lower-class, liberals must demonstrate exactly how these programs will not amount to a tax on the middle class and, on the contrary, will prove a stimulus.
Let’s begin with the minimum wage. Recent campaigns to raise the federal minimum wage—most notably the Fight For $15 movement—have faced vicious criticism from conservatives, including many middle-class workers. It’s easy for a liberal like me to dismiss this criticism as Wall Street greed, spoon-fed to unwitting Fox News watchers by Murdoch & Co. But that perspective completely dismisses the real concerns of many Americans and wastes a valuable opportunity to collaboratively propose and implement a minimum wage law that works for everyone.
Any middle-class worker will worry that a minimum wage hike will somehow come out of their paychecks, benefit low-wage workers and no one else, and leave their high-skill jobs with as much dignity as slicing pizza. Also, many members of the middle class are small business owners with employees to pay; in their case, a higher minimum wage will certainly feel like a tax hike targeted at them.
To dismiss these middle-class concerns as conservative brainwashing, or corporate greed, or apathy to the poor would be an enormous error. For the raised minimum wage’s successful implementation and reputation, the concerns of the middle class must be incorporated and addressed. First, the evidence that minimum wage hikes have proven to be excellent economic stimuli for the middle class (by increasing millions of people’s purchasing power and expanding markets for small businesses, products, and services) should be front and center. Any aspects of a minimum wage raise that would undermine this economic stimulus–for instance, a concurrent hike in income or sales tax–should be heavily scrutinized. Also, protecting the wellbeing of middle-class small business owners is imperative to the minimum wage’s success: higher minimum wages should be phased in beginning with the largest, highest-earning companies and working down, or small-business owners should have their employees’ higher wages subsidized for an initial period of years.
Perspectives of the hard-working middle class must also be considered when discussing and implementing poverty-alleviating government entitlements, specifically food stamps, unemployment benefits, and Medicaid. Again, it is insensitive of liberals to accuse entitlements’ opponents of insensitivity, especially since these programs are directly funded by workers’ paychecks. Many middle-class workers do not qualify for these benefits yet must fund them with their taxes, while they themselves struggle to feed, support, and insure their families.
In supporting entitlements, liberals must be careful not to fall victim to a holier-than-thou complex, especially since liberals’ moral high-ground is often supported by a complete disregard for middle-class workers’ legitimate question about entitlements: who’s going to pay for them?
Liberals cannot expect the middle class to sign onto additional (or even continued) entitlements without answering that question. To find this funding in the earnings of middle class workers and small businesses would be inconsiderate at best. Therefore, when forming entitlement policy and budgeting procedures, liberals must make explicit provisions to fund the bulk of entitlements with taxes on the highest-salaried executives and highest-grossing corporations. It must also make sure that these corporations pay their employees enough that they need not rely on entitlements, removing pressure from all taxpaying workers.
(In this important way, wages and entitlements are intertwined. It is liberals’ responsibility to correct the common misperceptions about entitlements, namely that the majority of their recipients are unemployed, sometimes chronically. Not only are unemployment benefits temporary and conditional on participation in work re-entry programs [thanks to the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton], but many food stamps and Medicaid go to workers who are underpaid or underemployed by their employers. By raising the minimum wage, millions would be pulled out of poverty and weaned off of entitlements, lowering the tax pressure on everyone—in addition to providing an economic stimulus.)
Respect for the concerns of the hard-working middle class is not only compatible with liberalism, but necessary to its success. Legitimizing and answering conservative concerns about poverty alleviation programs is a political necessity for these programs’ passage and impact. Any anti-poverty program without middle-class workers’ collaboration, participation, education, and approval will ultimately stigmatize the program’s beneficiaries, breeding new hostilities and divisions.
Perhaps it is just a product of today’s hostile partisan climate that poverty-alleviation programs in everyone’s best interest—lower and middle class, liberals and conservatives—get ascribed to one political party and attacked by the other. For years, I have wanted the hard-working middle class to realize that liberals are on their side. But it’s on us liberals to show our respect.