New York Times, April 20, 2008
The Wage That Meant Middle Class
By Louis Uchitelle
Whatever Senator Barack Obama meant by his less than artful remarks about small-town
Pennsylvanians “bitter” over lost jobs, he certainly turned a lot of attention last week to the
decline of the American worker, bitter or not.
The talk most often has been of shuttered factories, layoffs, outsourcing and other effects
of globalization, especially in a state like Pennsylvania, which has lost tens of thousands of
industrial jobs. But there is another way to look at blue-collar workers.
Leaving aside for a moment those who have lost their jobs, what of those who still have
them? Once upon a time, a large number earned at least $20 an hour, or its inflation-adjusted
equivalent, and now so many of them don’t.
The $20 hourly wage, introduced on a huge scale in the middle of the last century,
allowed masses of Americans with no more than a high school education to rise to the middle
class. It was a marker, of sorts. And it is on its way to extinction.
Americans greeted the loss with anger and protest when it first began to happen in big
numbers in the late 1970s, particularly in the steel industry in Western Pennsylvania. But as
layoffs persisted, in Pennsylvania and across the country, through the ‘80s and ‘90s and right up
to today, the protests subsided and acquiescence set in.
Hourly workers had come along way from the days when employers and unions
negotiated a way for them to earn the prizes of the middle class – houses, cars, college
educations for their children, comfortable retirements. Even now a residual of that golden age
remains, notably in the auto industry. But here, too, wages are falling below the $20-an-hour
threshold - $41,600 annually – that many experts consider the minimum income necessary to put
a family of four into the middle class.
The nation’s political leaders – Democrats and Republicans alike – have argued that
education and training are a route back to middle-class wages for those who have fallen out. But
the demand isn’t sufficient to absorb all the workers that the leaders would educate. Even now,