The fight to win over the middle class

New social contract has upended old assumptions about economic status in America

Question: What is the most guaranteed applause line in American politics today?

Answer: Anything that allegedly benefits that fine group of Americans known as the middle class.

Want proof? Well, just about every other sentence uttered at the Democratic National Convention paid homage to this esteemed socioeconomic group. Ditto for the GOP in Tampa, where speaker after speaker spoke of the virtues of the middle-income worker.

From a political perspective, the drumbeat makes sense. The middle class tends to vote in large numbers. This fact is not lost on aspiring office seekers. Further, a wide swath of Americans view themselves as middle class; they enjoy the direct messaging from their elected leaders.

Opinion polls reflect this expansive definition as well: The Pew Research Center recently found that about half of all adult Americans define themselves as middle class.

Of course, life's realities provide context; age, vocation, family history, number of kids, and cost of living all have a direct impact on one's economic self-identity.

Changing "collar" identities contribute to the expanded definition, too. It used to be oh-so-simple: White collars meant professional jobs making good money. Blue collars signified less education — and typically less income.

But these old stereotypes are less true today. Post-recession, large numbers of white-collar professionals (especially lawyers and investment banker types) find themselves on the street. A sustained bad economy has forced many to take far less lucrative jobs. Some young professionals have even moved back home with their parents. These under-employed workers may continue to manifest a middle-class outlook, even when their diminished incomes do not match the moniker.

Conversely, technology has changed the economic environment for many blue-collar workers. Those who possess the technical skills needed to compete in today's tech-crazy world see lots of opportunity for upward mobility. Hence, your automobile mechanic may have dirty fingernails and a wear blue collar, but makes a pretty good dime. Indeed, six figures is not foreign territory for in-demand technology workers. For this group, green dollars trump blue collars.

The flipside is problematic. Far too many blue-collar workers lack necessary workplace skills. Accordingly, their entry into the middle class is postponed. An overwhelming majority of Americans see a secure job as the first requirement to qualify for middle class status.

For local context, think about Sparrows Point in the mid-1960s: an abundance of semi-skilled and lower-skilled jobs and a local population ready and willing to fill the positions. Both employer and employee knew that a work ethic was far more important than a high school or college degree. Many who failed to secure a degree were nevertheless able to buy their way into a middle-class life: marriage, kids, a house, and a comfortable quality of life were part of the bargain (if one survived the toxic and hazardous work environment).

This romanticized, but generally accurate, description died for good in the 1980s. Fat and happy management and labor played a part. So did unfair trading practices from foreign competitors. But it was technology that ended this industrial era chapter. Seemingly overnight, those semi-skilled jobs disappeared — never to return.

Today, a new social contract carries a far different message for entry into America's middle class. It is now all about education and marketable skills.

Which brings us back to the respective parties' pitch in this hotly contested presidential election.

Each has a plan that focuses on training and skills. (In Charlotte, you may recall President Barack Obama bemoaning America's 3 million unfilled jobs due to lack of marketable skills.) But the parties differ greatly on how to match prospective employees and market demand.

Progressives contend higher marginal tax rates on upper-income earners and more public sector jobs will grow the middle class. It's all about income disparity and sharing the (read: your) wealth. For conservatives, such thinking is nonsense. They see tax increases targeted to small business owners as anti-growth. Neither do they measure economic progress as a function of public sector growth. They believe they "built it" — and they wish to keep a fair amount of it.

A further note beyond all the ideological bickering: Middle-class status is as much a state of mind as an income classification. It's the conviction that one's hard work has paid off; that economic security and workplace contentment are at hand. Another observation: Salary increases, promotional opportunity and employer stability tend to make for happy (predominantly middle class) employees. Happy employees are also happy voters — a point well understood on both sides of the aisle.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics, and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

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