The middle-class comeback is real
It is not that U.S. workers have no worries. But job growth, up by 17 million since the recession-low point, and wage gains have reduced anxieties.
Indeed, wages for many middle-class workers may be understated. Government figures indicate that median weekly earnings grew almost 2 percent annually from 2012 to 2016. But these numbers are depressed by the retirement of well-paid baby boomers and their replacement by lower-paid, younger workers. When economists at the San Francisco Federal Reserve eliminated these effects, median wages grew nearly 4 percent annually for continuously employed full-time workers.
All this is reassuring. Middle-class values of order, predictability and personal responsibility have not entirely vanished. People could repay debts or add to savings. The University of Michigan Survey of Consumers reports that half of households say their "finances had recently improved, the best reading since 2000," notes director Richard Curtin.
Just how this new middle-class confidence fares in the next (inevitable) recession is unknowable. Meanwhile, it poses two immediate questions. Has it raised President Trump's popularity? And second, has it reduced pessimism about American institutions, from Congress to the media? The answer to both seems to be "no."
Here's how the CBS News Poll assessed the effect on Trump in a recent release: "President Donald Trump's approval rating is unchanged from June and remains at 36 percent, while favorable views of the U.S. economy continue to soar to heights not seen in more than 15 years. ... Americans say they're evaluating him more on culture and values than on how they're faring financially."
As for an uplifting effect on other American institutions, there isn't much yet. Gallup asks respondents whether they have "quite a lot" or "a great deal" of confidence in 14 institutions. The average level was 35 in June; Congress was 12, internet news 16 and big business 21. The highest rated institution was the military at 72, followed closely by small business at 70.
A successful America requires a large -- and largely successful -- middle class. The middle-class revival is evidence of optimism. The lingering question on this Labor Day is whether the revival has staying power. Or will memories of the Great Recession come back to haunt us?
(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group