President Obama Starts to Focus on the Middle Class

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One of the hot topics of conversation in progressive circles these days is the middle class. Democrats support plenty of programs that provide benefits to the poor (Medicaid, minimum wage, SNAP, etc.), but what about programs that benefit the middle class? What do Democrats do for them?

By coincidence, this week provides a couple of examples of programs that are targeted more at the middle class than the poor. First up is President Obama’s proposal to fund two years of free community college for everyone. As Libby Nelson explains, Pell Grants already make community college free for most low-income students:

The most radical part of Obama’s free community college proposal isn’t that it’s free — it’s that it’s universal….So the best way to look at the Obama free college plan is as a promise to the middle class. Families who earn too much for federal financial aid but aren’t wealthy enough to afford thousands of dollars of college bills are rightly feeling squeezed as tuition prices rise.

This might not be the most effective way to spend federal money. But it’s politically smart. To see why, look at pre-K. Most of the research on pre-kindergarten effectiveness is about whether it helps poor children catch up to their peers from wealthier families. But in 1995, Georgia decided to use lottery winnings to make free pre-K available not just to the poor, but to any family who wanted to join.

Two decades later, Georgia’s universal pre-K program is very popular, championed by liberals and conservatives alike. And the reason it’s managed to stay relatively apolitical and noncontroversial is that it’s universal, Fawn Johnson wrote in National Journal last year. A program just for the poor “would be about class warfare,” one Georgia Republican told her.

Elsewhere, Greg Sargent notes that new rules governing overtime wages could benefit middle-class workers:

Obama will soon announce a rules change that governs which salaried workers will get time-and-a-half over 40 hours under the Fair Labor Standards Act….“The spotlight is now on raising wages,” [AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka] told me. “Raising wages is the key unifying progressive value that ties all the pieces of economic and social justice together. We think the president has a great opportunity to show that he is behind that agenda by increasing the overtime regulations to a minimum threshold of $51,168. That’s the marker.

….A lower threshold could exclude millions. In raising his voice, Trumka joins Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, and other progressive Senators who have urged a threshold of $54,000, and billionaire Nick Hanauer, who is urging $69,000. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that raising the threshold to a sum approximating what the liberal Senators want could mean higher overtime pay for at least 2.6 million more people than raising it to $42,000. EPI says setting it at over $50,000 could mean over six million people, or 54 percent of salaried workers, are now covered.

Both of these proposals would primarily benefit middle-class workers which makes it unlikely that either of them will get any support from Republicans or from the business community. But they’re worth pursuing anyway. At least they let everyone know whose side each party is on.

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