Giving Compass' Take:

• Richard V. Reeves and Isabel V. Sawhill use data and stories to reveal truths about the American middle class the policy solutions that can support it. 

• What role can you play in implementing these solutions? What are the most pressing needs in your community? 

• Read about the lack of satisfaction in the American middle class

An aristocratic leisure class and a welfare-dependent underclass are equally unappealing to most Americans. This is why most people say they belong to the middle class. It is also why paid work is seen as so important. Americans – above all the newest among us, immigrants – want a society where everybody has the chance to “make something of themselves.”

Today, this contract is collapsing. Middle class families are working harder, with too little to show for it. Confidence in the prospects for the next generation is low. Trust in our institutions, and even in each other, is declining. The gaps between us are widening. Populism, fueled in part by middle class discontent, is rising.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been like the flash of an X-ray, exposing the deep fractures in our society – not least by race, but also by social class and economic status. Well-educated professionals, secure in their jobs and safe in their homes, have been observers of the devastation all around them. Meanwhile, the fragile finances, poor health and precarious employment of middle-class Americans, including many essential workers, have been laid bare.

A new contract with the middle class must be faithful to the spirit of our history but oriented towards the challenges of today’s economy and society. It should ask more of government as well as of Americans. A better future for the middle class is no longer just an important aspiration. It is an existential necessity.

Note that the new contact is with the middle class, not for the middle class. Middle class Americans are not inert vessels, waiting to be filled up with good things by a benign state. They want agency over their own lives. The first principle underpinning this contract, then, is partnership. College should be free (for at least two years), but only for those who undertake a year of national service: Scholarships for Service. Incomes should be higher, especially for those who are working. Health care should be better, but we each need to take more responsibility for our health, too. More time should be available to parents, but we should be willing to work until later ages.

The second principle is prevention. Too often public policy is focused on dealing with the costs and consequences of earlier failures – providing ambulances at the bottom of a cliff, rather than building fences at the top. It’s far better to act early. This means investing in health rather than health care, for example by improving nutrition or social services. It means universal access to reproductive health, especially the most effective forms of contraception, in order to give every child a strong start, ideally with two committed parents. It means providing childcare and working arrangements to prevent parents and (especially) mothers from losing ground in the labor market.

The third principle is pluralism. America is a large, varied, changing society. Individuals and communities differ, often greatly, in terms of what they want from life. This kaleidoscopic diversity is one of our greatest strengths. As far as possible, policy should embrace and even encourage a plurality of opinions, approaches, and goals. One size rarely fits all. National service ought to be a universal norm – but its form and organization will vary greatly. Our democratic processes should be inclusive of a wide range of voices – for example through “Citizens Juries” to guide policy. Families can come in all shapes and sizes and should be entitled to equal treatment. The ability to respect others, across lines of class, race, and politics, is a necessary skill in a diverse republic.

Read the full interactive resource about the middle class by Richard V. Reeves and Isabel V. Sawhill at Brookings