Middle Class Families on the Brink Testify in Senate Hearing

Jun 11, 2013

"In the richest country on earth, millions of families have been left out in the cold," is the tagline for American Winter, a 2013 documentary charting the struggles of eight Oregon families to make ends meet in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

On June 6, 2013, three families featured in the film testified during a Senate hearing titled, "State of the American Dream: Economic Policy and the Future of the Middle Class." The hearing, chaired by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, brought into focus the real-life implications of our public policy and gave voice to the struggles of low-income Americans, who our political process too often excludes.

Panel I included John Cox, Diedre Melson, and Pamela Thatcher, who discussed their personal experiences with unemployment, financial turmoil, and obstacles to accessing public benefits following the economic recession.

Cox, a cost accountant, was laid off in 2008. Since then, he has been unable to find a job and Wells Fargo has begun foreclosure on his home, leaving his ability to care for his son, who has Down's Syndrome, in serious doubt.

Melson, though now employed despite having been laid off, discussed her continued struggle to make ends meet.

"I never expected it-to work a full-time schedule and still depend on rental assistance, to still depend on SNAP benefits, to still depend on those services that you think are reserved for those who are mostly unemployed. I know the media, they exploit that one or two percent that may be taking advantage of the system. But the reality is that the other ninety-eight percent-they don't want to be there," said Melson.

"We imagined we would have the American Dream," said Thatcher. "We were a middle class family working hard."

Panel II featured experts in economics and business: Atif Mian, professor of economics and public policy at Princeton University; Amy Traub, senior policy analyst at Demos;  Nick Hanaeur of Second Avenue Partners; and Steve Hill of the Nevada Governor's Office of Economic Development. They discussed the underlying impact of the recession on the middle class and the economy.

"What happens to the middle class, because we live in an interdependent ecosystem, has a wider impact on the rest of the economy," said Mian. Middle America typically has the highest propensity to spend, but when they lose wealth, and cut back on spending, there is a fall in aggregate demand. When demand falls short, supply responds by decreasing, and jobs are lost.

Hanauer agreed, adding: "Rich business people don't create jobs [...]. What does create employment is [...] increasing demand and hiring [...]. The real job creators in America are middle class consumers [...]."

Traub highlighted the failure of public policy "to keep pace with who Americans are and how they now live." She stated, for example, that a college education is increasingly the price of entry into the middle class. "Yet policymakers have allowed it to be priced out of reach for most Americans."

For In Focus readers, these issues are not new. We hope that CLASP resources can help as you work on the array of challenges families are facing-both as a result of the Great Recession and the longer-term issues perpetuating poverty for decades. Consider examining our issue pages on employment strategies and poverty & opportunity, as well as our fact sheet on unmet financial aid for community college students.

What is new and vital is the chance for policymakers and others to hear directly from families impacted by these economic challenges.

As Senator Merkley explained: "[The panelists] were chosen for this film, not because their stories were exceptional, but precisely because the challenges and choices they have faced in the aftermath of the recession are so typical of the challenges and choices that working families faced across America. Frankly, we don't hear enough from ordinary working families who in tough times are fighting as hard as they can to get by."

We hope American Winter, Senate hearings like this one, and similar efforts around the country will continue to elevate the voices of the real human beings affected by public policy.  

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