The Biggest Tragedy of the Shutdown Had Nothing To Do With A Wall

Originally published on January 27th, 2019.

When all was said and done the biggest tragedy of the shutdown had nothing to with Trump’s wall, or the revelation that, once more, Washington proved it couldn’t govern. No, a monument to bigotry and a dysfunctional government, as sad as that might be, played second fiddle to the real problem that the shutdown unmasked, and that is the heartbreaking stories of federal workers who were unable to go even a month without getting paid and had to resort to going to food banks just to eat.

If you think this is just a public sector problem, you’re wrong. It affects the majority of the American workforce. As of 2017, according to a report published by CNBC, 78 percent of full-time workers lived paycheck to paycheck. That was up 3 percent from 2016. Another report, this one from Bankrate, said that only 39 percent of Americans would be able to pay an out of pocket medical expense of $1,000. The rest would either have to forgo the procedure, use a credit card, take out a personal loan or borrow the money from a relative or friend. Imagine not having enough savings to cover a thousand dollar medical bill.

But that’s precisely the plight most Americans find themselves in. The tragedy of the 2018-19 government shutdown is that it revealed just how close to the edge millions of people are. Part of the problem is the high cost of living, but the rest is owed directly to a shrinking middle class. In 1971, middle-income earners comprised 61 percent of the workforce; in 2015, it was barely 50 percent.

And that middle class is enjoying less and less of the fruits of this economy. While the United States controls 41 percent of the world’s wealth, it also has the largest percentage of wealth inequality of any industrialized country. As of 2014, the top 1 percent owned 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80 percent owned only 7 percent. The gap between the middle class and the top 1 percent was 2,000 percent. The average American employee needs to work more than a month to earn what the typical CEO earns in a day.

If Democrats are looking for an issue to run on in 2020 that will resonate with voters, this is it. Hatred for Trump may gin up the base, but a far more effective strategy would be to focus on providing solutions for the millions of people who week in and week out know all too well what it’s like to come face to face with financial ruin. Imagine what it must be like to literally be a month away from possibly being homeless.

That the richest country in the world should permit the majority of its citizens to live like this is an obscenity. Neither party has taken this problem seriously. Republicans have focused mainly on huge tax breaks for the rich that have only made a bad situation worse and added more than a trillion dollars to the debt. But Democrats have not done nearly enough to come to the table with solutions that can mitigate the disparity among the classes.

Perhaps Elizabeth Warren could become the candidate to champion this cause – assuming, that is, Bernie doesn’t make another run – but so far she has been more concerned with regulating Wall Street and the banks than addressing income equality. And while many in the party favor raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, that will do little to help struggling families get ahead. Many of the federal workers who were victims of the shutdown make $20 or more an hour and still were up a creek once they missed a paycheck.

Until and unless we have a real conversation about what it means to be middle class in this country, I doubt we’ll be able to address the problems with this shrinking demographic. One thing we do know: Trump’s success was due in no small part to the belief by blue-collar workers that he would have their backs. Obviously, like most of his promises, that turned out to be a con. But those blue-collar workers are still out there and they’re still hurting. This used to be a reliably Democratic voter bloc. If they hope to win it back, they will have to work for it.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Thanks to the storm Trump inadvertently created, Democrats may have been given the silver lining of a lifetime.

Author: Peter Fegan

Progressive but pragmatic. Lover of music, die-hard Giants' fan and reluctant Mets' fan. My favorite motto? I'd rather be ruled by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian.

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