One of Joe Biden's first jobs as vice president is to convene a task force on the status of the middle class in America in the midst of the severe economic downturn. The expectation is, of course, that the appropriate policies and legislation from the new administration and Congress could help put the middle class back on its feet.
This is a fertile area, one that the previous administration did not spend much time on.
Expected to be included in the Biden group are Cabinet officials and repre-
sentatives of business, labor and advocacy groups.
In the years leading up to the economic meltdown triggered by the burst in the housing bubble, Americans' economic status had been in flux depending on industry and geographical location. Job growth was consistently high, but good-paying jobs were lost as manufacturing moved overseas, where wages were much lower. Even low-wage and assembly-line industries, such as textiles and children's toys, left and surfaced where wages were even lower.
The South benefited from new foreign auto plants, while the upper Midwest suffered from high-cost U.S. plants and a tradition of high benefits. In the financial sector, where paper deals were packaged and repackaged in all kinds of creative ways to claim value, job growth was considerable and salaries (with bonuses) were high.
Heavily discounted retailers took some of the sting out of minimal wage increases and lower-paying jobs with shelves of low-cost items of reasonably good quality. Americans consumed, using their credit cards. Even if one was not thinking of moving, ever increasing home prices added comfortably to the family balance sheet.
Underlying the concerns of working
families were the costs of retirement and, especially, health care. What would be
needed for retirement could be predicted and budgeted by the diligent, but health care was an unknown. It could strike hard and fast - or even worse, long - and a single
condition could bring a family close to bankruptcy.
Even before the economy's collapse in the last year, Americans were not saving enough for retirement (home values would be a resource, then) and there were no solutions to the worries of how to provide for health care. The condition of the economy now makes both worse.
What the vice president's task force on the middle class discovers, and the quality of the solutions it recommends, will be critical to the country's future.