By almost every measure, 2011 was a lost year for the American middle class. Who is to blame depends on your political view. What follows is an attempt to sum up the major developments and missed opportunities of the year gone by. For me, the following areas represent the most serious perils facing middle class Americans.
– Jobs: Economists generally agree that the single most effective way to revive the American middle class is to create more high-paying, stable private sector jobs. The unexpected emergence of 140,000 new private sector jobs in November helped drop the unemployment rate to a two-and-a-half-year low 8.6 percent, but the rosier figure was aided by 315,000 people who gave up and stopped looking for work last month. The most important factor of all — the quality of the new jobs — was unclear. Governments, meanwhile, slashed 20,000 public sector jobs across the country and deadlock in Washington blocked both Obama’s $447 billion jobs plan and Republican job creation proposals.
– Fiscal order: Economists also generally agree that a bipartisan plan to seriously address the $1.7 trillion federal deficit could increase business and consumer confidence, strengthen the economy and potentially create jobs. The year began with hopes that the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles plan might gain traction in Washington. Yet President Obama and Republican leaders both failed to embrace it. Months of disastrous partisanship followed, from the summer default brinksmanship, to the fall failure of the Congressional super-committee to the prolonged deadlock over how to fund payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance extensions.
– Housing: Home values are at an eight-year low and more than 10 million American families are underwater, or owe more than their homes are worth. The state of the housing market is yet another drag on the middle class. In October, The White House announced a change in executive branch rules designed to help families refinance at historically low interest rates, but the effort is too small to have a serious impact. Like so many other issues, legislation that might achieve more is frozen in a deadlocked Congress.
– Higher Education: Technological advances have created a global economy where members of the American middle class must adapt or fall behind. Low-skilled manufacturing jobs have left the United States and will never return. Learning high-end manufacturing skills, getting a practical college degree or looking for business in China, India and other emerging markets are all ways Americans can potentially compete in the global economy. After carrying out impressive K-12 education reforms, the White House outlined some promising reforms to reduce tuition and increase innovation in higher education at a December meeting with college presidents. Yet again, convincing an ideologically divided Congress to act will be difficult.