THE REMARKABLE thing about the American middle class is that we still have one, given the job losses, housing bust, and 401(k) wipeout of the past three years—and considering that for 35 years, politicians (and the bankers who own them) have been hammering away at middle-class institutions. The assault began in the 1970s, when New York City's fiscal crisis and California's property-tax revolt marked the start of a long decline in public services. Next came the recession and anti-union policies of the early 1980s, whose whip's end hit the black working class especially hard. (Automakers have long been among the nation's largest private employers of African Americans. In the late '70s, one in every 50 African Americans in the workforce was employed in the industry.) Thanks to the UAW, the automakers provided good jobs and pensions for workers who, in many cases, had a high-school education at best. When Chrysler hit the ropes in 1979, Congress did pitch in with a $1.5 billion loan guarantee (I worked on that bill as an economist for the House banking committee), but the decade that followed still pummeled autoworkers—as they did all of American manufacturing.
The consequences are still unfolding. Total employment of manufacturing workers peaked in 1979, and three decades later, we're in the endgame. Jobs in the sector are down by about a third since 2000—some 6 million lost. Most of them will never be replaced. Nothing can stop the Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and others from making shoes and ships and sealing wax at wages we can't compete with. And nothing will.
For a time in the 2000s, some of those job losses were offset by gains in the other hard-hat sector: construction. But the Great Recession put an end to that. Since 2007, a quarter of construction jobs have disappeared, more than 2 million in all—about as many as were lost in manufacturing, but from a much smaller base.
Those numbers tell of the next big middle-class tragedy—the housing bust. Homeownership was a great American success story. It rose for 60 years, peaking around 2004—and for most of those six decades it was an honest business, more or less. But in its last five years, the long boom was kept alive by the greatest financial swindle in world history. In the collapse that followed, an enormous amount of middle-class wealth was wiped out. Homes were once a source of pride, safety, and collateral. Now they're often a burden—and homebuilding is at lows not seen since World War II.
Is it a shock that after the Citizens United decision, Target was among the first companies to write a huge check to a political campaign?
With manufacturing and construction on the ropes, service jobs now practically comprise the whole economy. Our rich folks today make their money in finance and technology; the upper middle class lives on trade, law, and medicine; and the middle class teaches and works in the civil service. The working class cooks, cleans, trucks, soldiers, stocks, repairs cars, makes beds, changes bedpans, and rings up sales. Today there are more salespeople, more hotel and restaurant workers, far more lawyers, doctors and accountants, and almost twice as many education and health workers as there are people producing tangible goods.
This isn't all bad. Conditions in stores, restaurants, and hospitals are often better than in factories. Jobs are more stable because labor in these businesses is mainly a fixed cost—an assembly line can be idled at a moment's notice, but a store needs salesclerks even when business is down. Goods made abroad are cheap, which helps consumers. The health and education sectors now have almost 30 percent more workers than they did in 2000, and that means, in part, more and better services in these areas.
The downside is that because many of these jobs aren't unionized, wages are lousy. The only thing that reliably bolsters service wages is the federal minimum wage: When it rises, as it did from $6.55 to $7.25 in 2009, service jobs above the minimum are forced up (PDF) as well (to maintain the spread). And when Congress doesn't raise the minimum, real wages decline with inflation.
Is it any surprise that today our leading reactionaries come from retail behemoths like Wal-Mart? Is it a shock that Target was among the first companies, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, to write a huge check to a political campaign? That fast-food chains are tenacious opponents of a higher minimum wage? That hotel owners from New Orleans (PDF) to Santa Monica (PDF) have fought against "living wage" laws? Having thwarted the unions, they now target the government—its taxes, its regulations, and above all, its wage standards.
So: Most of the nation's remaining jobs are in services, where pay depends largely on acts of Congress. Houses are no longer valuable commodities. Private pensions are largely kaput, and many 401(k)s were also wiped out in the crash. What's left to protect economic security for ordinary Americans?