What Gets Measured, Gets Done: Understanding and Addressing Middle‐Class Challenges

Published date01 September 2019
Date01 September 2019
768 Public Administration Review Septe mber | Oct ober 2 019
Abstract: Middle-class families face a range of challenges, including uneven income growth, imposing child care
costs, and affordability gaps for higher education. The ideal policies by which policy makers and public administrators
can aid the middle class are far from obvious. Policy solutions are likely to mirror our government and population,
meaning that they will be decentralized and varied. Achieving a “growing and thriving middle class” requires
understanding the composition of the middle class across the country. Benchmarking and measuring the middle-class
condition at the state and substate levels is critical to crafting and adopting effective policy solutions. This Viewpoint
essay highlights the Colorado context to demonstrate the measurement of the middle class and tracking of its lived
What Gets Measured, Gets Done: Understanding and
Addressing Middle-Class Challenges
Todd L. Ely
Geoffrey Propheter
University of Colorado Denver
Rich Jones
Scott Wasserman
Bell Policy Center
Former senator and vice president Joe Biden
has called for policy makers and public
administrators to address the challenges
increasingly faced by middle-class families. His direct
call to action, however, belies the complexity of the
task. Appropriate policy solutions will certainly vary
across and within states because of differences in the
composition of the middle class and the aspirations
of those striving to achieve and maintain it. Thus,
effective public policy cannot be called upon to meet
Biden’s vision of a “growing and thriving middle class”
until we understand the variation in the composition
and economic security of the middle class across the
country. Benchmarking the middle-class condition
at the state level is also a key step toward knowing
whether specific policy solutions are effective
over time. We draw on the Colorado context to
demonstrate the value of measurement as a necessary
precursor to developing targeted policy solutions.
In a review of Colorado’s middle-class families
primarily using data from the federal government,
we found relatively high median debt-to-income
levels, troubling median home-value-to-household-
income ratios, and imbalances across middle-class
representation by race and ethnicity (Ely and
Propheter 2018). We also discovered that Colorado
has made modest progress over the past two decades
in increasing middle-class representation among
Hispanic families. The education and occupation gaps
have widened over time between the state’s lower,
middle, and upper income classes. These findings
suggests focused policy prescriptions targeting
particular subdemographics based on the priority that
lawmakers attach to each.
We believe state-specific assessments of the middle
class are needed, alongside a set of performance
indicators tracking how the middle class fares over
time and across states using publicly available data and
replicable methodologies. These measures allow policy
makers to monitor the health of the middle class, fit
solutions to each state’s unique situation, and tackle
the primary challenges of encouraging the types of
jobs needed to sustain and establish broadly accessible
pathways supporting economic mobility into the
middle class.
In January 2010, a report titled Middle Class in
America was released by the Office of the Vice
President’s Middle Class Task Force. We performed
a similar exercise within Colorado to understand the
composition of the state’s middle-income families and
to identify sources of cost pressures that make it more
difficult for families to reach and maintain middle-
class status. The lessons from Colorado can inform
policy responses across the country or serve as an
impetus to undertake similar baseline studies.
Def‌ining Middle Class
“Middle class” resists a precise definition, yet a precise
definition is needed to discuss the history and current
state of the middle class, as well as potential policy
solutions to help support it. While it is clear who falls
below the federal poverty line or into the top
1 percent of earners, the middle is relative and subject
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 5, pp. 768–771. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13083.
Rich Jones served as director of policy
and research for the Bell Policy Center
from 2004 to 2018. Previously, he was
director of legislative programs for the
National Conference of State Legislatures,
where he worked for 24 years. He also
served as a researcher for the Pennsylvania
General Assembly. He holds a bachelor’s
degree in government administration from
Shippensburg University and a master of
public administration degree from Penn State.
E-mail: jones@bellpolicy.org
Geoffrey Propheter is assistant
professor in the School of Public Affairs
at the University of Colorado Denver. His
research interests include local tax policy
and administration, land and economic
development, and sports and urban affairs.
He received his PhD from the George
Washington University.
E-mail: geoffrey.propheter@ucdenver.edu
Todd L. Ely is associate professor in the
School of Public Affairs at the University
of Colorado Denver, where he directs the
Center for Local Government Research
and Training. His research focuses on
the financing of state and local public
services, education finance, and public and
nonprofit financial management. He is the
coauthor (with Mary E. Guy) of
of Public Service,
an introductory public
administration textbook. He received his
PhD from New York University.
E-mail: todd.ely@ucdenver.edu
Scott Wasserman is president of the
Bell Policy Center and Bell Action Network.
Previously, he was deputy chief of staff
to Colorado governor John Hickenlooper
and chief of staff to Lieutenant Governors
Joe Garcia and Donna Lynne. He worked
in the governor’s office from 2013 to
2016, advising on health care, education,
and workforce development. Before that,
he held leadership positions at SEIU and
Colorado WINS. Scott graduated from the
George Washington University.
E-mail: wasserman@bellpolicy.org
Stephen E. Condrey
andTonya Neaves,
Associate Editors

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