Krystal Ball: The help the middle class really needs

Krystal BallPresident Obama just gave another economic speech, this time in Phoenix, aimed at helping middle class families attain the American dream of home ownership.  In truth, however, owning a home is only one part of the American dream. The real core of the American Dream was illustrated well recently by Robert Putnam, a social scientist whose work on community and inequality has influenced the president.  In a recent op-ed for The New York Times Putnam talks about the way his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, has crumbled. He warns that the American dream is in danger of crumbling right along with it as manufacturing jobs leave and Port Clinton residents become locked in a cycle of poverty, hopelessness and despair.

I just spent the summer with my family and my new baby in my own crumbling rust belt town and I can attest to the fact that seeing that sort of regional despair up close has a way of clarifying your thinking. My little town of East Liverpool, Ohio, used to be the pottery capital of the world. Now China is the pottery capital of the world. The next town over, Midland, PA., used to be home to one of the largest steel mills in the country, offering thousands of good, union, middle class jobs. Now the mill is all but defunct. What will replace these jobs? That’s the real economic question we need to focus on, the real heart of preserving the American dream.  After all you need a job and money to buy a house.

We tend to romanticize our era of manufacturing dominance and there is something wonderful about making things. Perhaps with new technology and new economic incentives we can restore some of our manufacturing prowess but there’s no time machine to take us back to the good old days. But listen to Richard Florida, senior editor at the Atlantic. He suggests the job boom we really need is staring us right in the face. Jobs that can’t be outsourced, in a sector that is already growing rapidly. The service sector. Jobs like retail clerks, home health care providers, childcare workers.

As manufacturing jobs have declined in this country, service sector jobs have increased. Perhaps rather than trying to bring back a bygone manufacturing era, we need to find a way to make service jobs the sort of good jobs that you can support a family on, buy a car with, take vacations on.

I don’t know exactly how we do it. But I know the activism among fast food workers and WalMart employees is a good start. I know that companies like Costco and Zappos and Amazon are leading the way by showing that a respected worker is a productive worker. And I also know that turning service jobs into middle class jobs will likely require a willingness among all of us to pay a bit more for the services we use. But keep in mind, manufacturing jobs were not always so great. They started out dirty, low paid, and dangerous. Perhaps service sector jobs can evolve just as manufacturing jobs did in those good old days.

Home ownership is fine. Bridges and roads are great. Education is absolutely critical. But what we really need to preserve the American Dream is a realistic path for all to the middle class through a fundamental shift in the way we view and treat our service workers. Oh, and it might help to have a Congress that was actually interested in tackling these problems, or might even be in session now and then.

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