Guest Editorial: From Working Class to Middle Class

AuthorMaria P. Aristigueta,Pablo I. McConnie‐Saad
Published date01 September 2019
Date01 September 2019
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760 Public Administration Review Septe mber | Oct ober 2 019
Maria P. Aristigueta
Pablo I. McConnie-Saad
University of Delaware
Guest Editorial: From Working Class to Middle Class
Retirement plans, college savings, mortgage
payments, credit card debt, and loan
repayments are some of the items of growing
concern for the American working and middle
classes. The old adage that if you work hard and
play by the rules, you will move up in life no longer
resonates with millions of hardworking Americans.
Our economy and its impact on working and
middle-class lives has become one of the most salient
issues in our society. The middle class has remained
stagnant at best, and there is little agreement on
how to rebuild it. As a result, former Vice President
Joseph R. Biden, Jr. called upon leading scholars and
thinkers from the field of public affairs to find policy
solutions to revitalize what he regards as an ailing
middle class in this country, stating that, without a
strong middle class, democracy as we know it will
Finding a policy prescription to this problem has
proven difficult as there are institutional, behavioral,
and methodological components that complicate our
understanding of the structure of the middle class. A
recent report from the American Enterprise Institute
sheds light on how the issue is perceived along the
partisan divide:
The nuanced version of the progressive
view holds that the problem begins with
economics—growing income inequality,
disappearing jobs, stagnant wages, downward
mobility—which then triggers a broad array
of cultural consequences, including weaker
families and fragmenting communities.
Nuanced conservatives do not deny that
the US is undergoing a historic economic
transformation. But they tend to see economic
effects as secondary, exacerbating but not
causing a more fundamental weakening of
social norms—that able- bodied men should
work, that they are responsible for providing for
their families, that couples should marry before
having children. (Cass et al. 2018, 13)
This begs the questions what is the source for the
decline in the middle class, and how can the middle
class be restored? Furthermore, a clear definition that
distinguishes between the working and middle classes
needs to be established. Who are the working class?
What is necessary in order for the working class to
become the middle class? This symposium aims to
provide answers to some of these questions and to
offer possible solutions, as well as to demonstrate that
this is not simply a partisan issue but rather a national
Data show that, since the economic recession and
financial crisis of 2008, unemployment has returned
to a 10-year low and that the U.S. economy has
continued to grow at a healthy rate of nearly 3 percent.
According to Kochhar, “about half (52%) of American
adults lived in middle-class households in 2016.
This is virtually unchanged from the 51% who were
middle class in 2011” (Kochhar, 2018). The problem
is that, while the size of the nation’s middle class
remained relatively stable, financial gains for middle-
income Americans during this period were modest
compared with those of higher-income households,
causing the income disparity between the groups to
grow. The country has experienced years of decline
in the middle class in the past; however, the “recent
stability in the share of adults living in middle-
income households marks a shift from a decades-long
downward trend. From 1971 to 2011, the share of
adults in the middle class fell by 10 percentage points”
(Kochhar 2018). So, if we are looking at the overall
trend, despite seeing some stability, we must recognize
that it is the stability of a diminished middle class.
The working class, on the other hand, is an
understudied group. A 2018 Brookings Institution
report explains that little is known about working-
class problems because there is no long history of
public policy trial and error to learn from. It raises
the simplest questions regarding who should be
considered part of the working class and how large
and diverse is the group? What is known is that the
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 5, pp. 760–762. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13088.
Pablo I. McConnie-Saad is doctoral
student in Urban Affairs & Public Policy
at the Biden School of Public Policy and
Administration, University of Delaware. His
research focuses on democratic institutions
and economic development.
Maria P. Aristigueta holds the Charles
P. Messick chair of public administration, is
professor and director of the Biden School
of Public Policy and Administration, and
is a senior policy fellow at the Institute
for Public Administration, University of
Delaware. Her teaching and research
interests include creating strong institutions
to strengthen democracy, particularly as
it pertains to organizational behavior and
performance management.
Stephen E. Condrey
and Tonya Neaves,
Associate Editors

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