Obama’s Narrow Middle Class Agenda Will Take Center Stage In SOTU Address

Today the President spoke at the Middle Class Task Force about a series of initiatives he will propose at the State of the Union Address later this week. Here are some of these steps, from an Administration fact sheet:

1. Nearly Doubling the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit for middle class families making under $85,000 a year. This is accomplished by increasing their tax credit rate from 20% to 35% of qualifying expenses. The value of the tax credit nearly doubles for all families making under $85,000 a year, and every family that makes under $115,000 will see their tax credit increase.

Additionally, for families struggling to join the middle class, the administration will provide a $1.6 billion increase in child care funding, the largest one-year increase in 20 years, to help an additional 235,000 children.

2. Limiting a student’s federal loan payments to 10 percent of his or her income above a basic living allowance. This will lower payments for hundreds of thousands of students, who are struggling to make ends meet coming out of college.

3. Creating a system of automatic workplace IRAs, requiring all employers to give the option for employees to enroll in a direct-deposit IRA.

4. Expanding tax credits to match retirement savings and enacting new safeguards to protect retirement savings, making it easier for families to plan for retirement.

5. Expanding support for families balancing work with caring for elderly relatives, helping them manage their multiple responsibilities and allowing seniors to live in the community for as long as possible.

These are transactional checklist kind of things, which you hear about in a Presidential address and then check back in five years later to see if any of them actually makes it into law. But even on the level of a checklist there are concerns. Why exactly would anyone be interested in dumping money from their jobs, at a time of falling wages, into the Wall Street Casino through an IRA? The savings rate is actually increasing during this recession, so encouraging more saving only enriching investment fund managers and sucks more money out of the real economy. In addition, the child tax credit that everyone’s so excited about is nonrefundable and would only benefit a narrow amount of people, because those who don’t owe federal income tax would be ineligible.

There’s no question that Obama’s rhetoric is targeted correctly, around middle class security and creating that “new foundation for growth.” But the middle class is in a world of hurt right now, and basically, instead of small-ball and narrow-cast tax credits they need actual jobs.

In December, the House, with no assistance from Obama, narrowly passed a $154 billion jobs will, which also provides fiscal relief to the states and extends unemployment and health benefits for jobless workers. But the word from the White House is that Obama will not support that high a number, and will give more prominence to deficit reduction. So despite the rhetoric about Obama getting past the health-bill morass and emphasizing jobs, jobs, jobs, he hasn’t yet put his money (ours, actually) where his mouth is.

So on the signature issue that would actually respond to the jobs crisis, Obama is unlikely to support a measure that doesn’t even get near what’s required. And on the signature political issue, what the Congress and the White House have spent a year discussing, Obama continues to float airily above the debate, letting Congress sort out the details and talking about “letting the dust settle,” angering practically everyone in the Democratic coalition, including Congress, which is growing incredibly frustrated.

The modest aid for families olive branch in the State of the Union is nice, although unlikely to even be enacted. But the middle class needs a bit more than a nudge toward workplace IRAs; especially at this time, when there’s so much anxiety among workers.

No. 1: The middle class may never be the same again

The full effects of the crash of 2007-2008 on the lives of regular Americans has yet to be fully appreciated. For most members of the middle class, their sense of financial well-being was largely based on the size of their 401(k)s and their equity as homeowners. After the collapse of stock prices and with the steep drop in home prices, many may never feel the same way again, or spend their money as confidently.

Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren, an emerging hero among progressives in her role as chair of the congressional bailout oversight panel, sees the latest series of blows as the unfortunate culmination of a crisis that started taking form a generation ago. For long stretches of time, the growth in the nation’s GDP has gone almost entirely to the top 1% or less of the population. That has resulted in a dramatic shift in wealth away from the middle class, made the economy more vulnerable to disaster and made the toll of such a disaster more catastrophic to all but the wealthiest Americans […] She concludes: “America without a strong middle class? Unthinkable, but the once-solid foundation is shaking.”

That’s a must-read.

We’re on the road to a major economic stagnation, and the signals everyone is picking up is a withering from the challenge. That, more than any policy, is what is shedding voters right now.

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