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Can Barack Obama Really Save the Middle Class?

After six years of recession and gridlock, most voters don't share the president's rosy view on the "middle-class economy."
Giovanni Marmal, an unemployed 22-year-old from the Bronx. Photos by author

Delivering his sixth State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama declared that the nation's crises are officially over—that after years of war and terror and economic collapse, America is finally ready to "turn the page."

"Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis," he told Congress. "Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over."


"America, for all that we've endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this," Obama added. "The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong."

It was a triumphant message, reminiscent of the "Hope and Change" days of the 2008 campaign, and was followed by a sweeping set of domestic policy ideas on issues like income inequality, immigration, and climate change. With the economy—and his approval ratings—on the rise, it was an opportunity for Obama to open up a new chapter of his administration, and focus on the liberal priorities he's been promising to promote since taking office.

But as Obama visits Kansas and Idaho this week to promote the agenda he outlined Tuesday, he faces increased skepticism from voters who don't necessarily share his rosy view of the economy. New Yorkers I spoke to this week told me that after six years of economic recession and political gridlock, they don't expect much from the president or his proposals. And they definitely aren't convinced that the economic crisis is really over.

"A lot of people, including myself, have been wondering where's Obama's been on a lot of issues," Rumaan Alam, a 37-year-old telemarketer from Brooklyn told me. "The economy is on a lot of people's minds." He added, "I worry about working class people and I worry about myself, given how hard it has been to find work with a college education living in this city."


Rumaan Alam, Brooklyn.

Sure, there are positive signs that the worst of the economic crisis is over. Unemployment is down to 5.6 percent, almost half of what it was at the peak of the recession. But Republican Senator Joni Ernst was right when she pointed out in her party's official response that the drop is due in part to the fact that many of the long-term unemployed have simply given up looking for work. The percentage of eligible workers who are either employed or actively looking for jobs is currently at 62.9 percent, the lowest it's been since 1977.

And the jobs out there are far shittier than they were six years ago. According to numbers from the National Employment Law Center, there are roughly 1.2 million fewer jobs in mid- and higher-wage industries than there were prior to the recession, while there are 2.3 million more jobs in lower-wage industries. While the wealthiest Americans have bounced back from the economic crisis, middle-income earners have struggled. The median upper-class household net worth by income is $639,400, according to the Pew Research Center, seven times that of the median middle-class income, $96,500, and nearly 69 times that of poorest households, whose median net worth comes to just $9,300. In the past year, wages have only risen by a measly 1.7 percent. With Obama's championing of the "middle-class economy" Tuesday, it's hard not to point out the problematic fact that the middle class is actually much smaller than it was when the president first took office.


Claudine Isaac, Harlem

The cornerstone of the president's State of the Union proposals is a plan to raise $320 billion over the next ten years by taxing inherited assets and raising the capital gains tax on income over $500,000 from 23.8 percent to 28 percent. The revenue, Obama said, would go towards tax breaks for middle and lower income earners, including a $500 tax break for families with two working spouses. The president also renewed his calls for an increase in the minimum wage, daring members of Congress who refuse to take up a bill on the issue to try living on $15,000 a year. $15,000 a year, about what the current $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage amounts to.

People I spoke with in New York this week seemed cautiously optimistic that the president's new State of the Union promises might translate into tangible improvements in their own lives.

Joey Lefitiz, Brooklyn

"I feel like if you can help people who don't have a lot it would help everybody," Michelle Simono, a 23-years-old Kingsborough Community College student from Harlem said this week. "But the people on top want to stay on top. They've worked hard — well, some of them have worked hard — in order to get what they want. They feel like we can just do the same. But we don't have the same resources that they have, so it's harder."

And others said they wished Obama had gone further. "Be real with the people," said Joey Lefitz, a 27-year-old I spoke with in Brooklyn. "The gap between the rich and poor is getting worse and worse. When I walk around the street, I keep seeing all these fucked-up people living in bad situations. I don't blame Obama, though. I understand he's just a figurehead. He's not pulling the strings. The system is bought out. People are like 'the system is broken.' But no, it's working. It's working the way people who control it want it to work. They're making their money and here we are."

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