What is America's middle class?

By Tom Putnam | Dec 23, 2011

Democracy should assure legal freedoms. This means that all people should have the opportunity to pursue their wildest dreams, as long as they don’t infringe on others' rights.

We hear a lot today about America’s disappearing middle class. Until recently, a society’s middle class included small business owners, who had developed personal wealth.

During the 20th Century, the U.S. was the world’s principle producer of automobiles. Because of the rough treatment of labor by the steel industries in the first half of the century, labor unions were established. Their mission was to protect the rights of laborers, who began to receive decent wages for their sweat and tears. Labor unions were formed in the automobile industry and Detroit became the principle city for automobile production. Union wages began to rise for workers on the automobile assembly lines.

My father, the oldest of three sons of a widowed grade school principal (my paternal grandmother), worked for Chevrolet after he graduated in 1928 from the College of Engineering at the University of California in Berkeley. My parents were living in Cincinnati when World War II developed and eventually moved to Detroit in 1947. I entered the University of Cincinnati as a pre-med student in 1948. During the summer, I would go home to Detroit and was able to work on the automobile assembly line at the Chrysler factory on Jefferson Avenue. I made a very good wage, approximately $2.50 per hour. The job was enabled by our neighbor, who had started on the assembly line at Chrysler and had risen to the rank of supervisor. His son was in dental school. He recognized the value and importance of education.

There were quite a few college students working at the Chrysler factory and we were all asked to join the UAW-CIO. One student refused. Two workers grabbed him by his buttocks and shoulders, hauled him to the door and tossed him outside. He did not return. The rest of us joined the union.

I met some wonderful workers during my several summers at Chrysler. They knew of my desire to become a physician. Each summer when I returned, I would be greeted by some old friends with, “Hey Doc, good to see you back!”

As time passed, wages steadily rose under union influence. Detroit became a destination for many families, mostly from the South, who worked on automobile assembly lines. They made good wages and were able to afford mortgages for decent housing. Those workers were then able to afford to send their own children to college for more education than they had achieved. The assembly-line workers became America’s new middle class and they were enabled by the automotive labor unions. During the latter part of the 20th Century, the term middle class was applied on the basis of a person’s income. The prevalence of well-paying jobs for unskilled labor enabled many citizens to be labeled middle class. This had little to do with new innovations and creativity. It was strictly production line work.

As the 20th Century began to wind down, more countries, particularly in the Far East where unions did not exist and labor was inexpensive, began to develop production jobs. Many U.S. companies began to produce their products offshore. That was a no-brainer. If you owned a company in the U.S., you were responsible to your shareholders.

Now that those high-paying jobs have gone offshore to countries where labor costs are cheaper, the middle class has shrunk considerably and the blue collar ex-middle class worker is looking for employment, and having difficulty in finding it. Detroit today is a ghost town compared to the Detroit that I knew in the mid-20th Century.

The next big job-creators dealt with communication and cyber-space industries. Those jobs quickly followed the route of those in the auto industry: Offshore. Now we are beginning to see jobs created for green energy production. Some believe that will lessen the current planet warming process. Others see those jobs as relieving the U.S.’s dependence on foreign petroleum. Both are excellent reasons for the creation of those jobs. Of course, those jobs have begun to move offshore, principally to the Far East.

All of this offshore movement robs the U.S. of so-called middle class income; however there is a beginning rise in worker’s pay in those offshore countries. Eventually, those wages will equal the wages of our middle class workers in the U.S. That should be good news for the U.S. working class; but is likely to be a generation down the road. So what is to be done in the meantime?

The answer, as always, is education.

The human is an amazing animal. Look at what was accomplished in the 20th Century. I would expect that the 21st Century will even be more robust. When I see what has been accomplished in medicine, physics, engineering, let alone music, literature, and all of the arts in the 20th Century, then the 21st Century should be truly awesome. I can’t imagine what the 22nd Century will be like.

Communication, both personal, and through cyber-space, will facilitate greater creativity; and, hopefully, peaceful co-existence throughout our small planet. This should make wars, a troubled part of the mankind’s history, unnecessary. The spring uprisings, though some are still not settled, set a preamble for a new world of cooperation and benefits for all. I can even see the eventual establishment of one overall government for our entire globe. The formation of the U.S. and the European Union are good indicators for paths in this direction.

But this must be facilitated by the attainment of the best education achievable for each individual in this developing global society. Education does not begin when one enters elementary school. It begins shortly after birth. That initial parental education makes the child curious about her/his surroundings. That, in itself, is the beginning of curiosity, which will benefit that child throughout life. The human animal is an amazing and ingenious being. Let’s not stifle that. Let’s promote it. Rewards to the individual, to the middle class, to all of mankind will be awesome.

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