Middle class ‘slowly clawing its way back’

The American Dream has long been predicated on a strong and growing middle class. That’s why there has been so much talk in recent years about the withering of that dream. Growing income inequality and stagnant wages among all but those at the top have made the goal of a stable middle-class life an elusive one for more and more Americans. (In 2011, CommonWealth devoted a whole issue of the magazine to the eroding American Dream.)

A new report from Pew Charitable Trusts offers at least a small glimmer of hope that the situation is improving, even if slowly and, so far, only modestly.

Pew’s Stateline, which provides regular reporting and data analysis on state trends, says every state but one (Wyoming) saw the middle class lose ground between 2000 and 2013. The period from 2013 to 2016, however, saw the middle class “slowly clawing its way back,” says the report.

The report defines middle class households as those earning between two-thirds and twice the state size-adjusted median household income. By that benchmark, 38 states saw a larger share of households fall into the middle class in 2016 than in 2013. The longer view is not as rosy. In 2000, in 43 states at least half of all households fell into that middle-class income bracket. In 2016, that was true in just 30 states, though the number had increased from 28 states in 2013.

Massachusetts was among the 38 states that saw growth in the middle class from 2013 to 2016, but it was not much to get excited about — a growth of 0.6 percentage points, from 48.7 percent to 49.3 percent. It also leaves the Bay State among the 20 states where less than half of all households meet the middle-class benchmark.

Curiously, Connecticut, which has been the focus of lots of bad economic and state budget news, was one of just three states (along with Georgia and Montana) where the middle class grew by 2 percentage points or more from 2013 to 2016.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh weighed in on the plight of the middle class on Wednesday in a speech in Washington to North America’s Building Trades Unions. Walsh told the union leaders that critics predicted he would “give the store away” if elected mayor because of his labor background. “Boy were they wrong,” he said.

Walsh went on to tick off all the positive economic news in Boston since he took office in 2014, including 85,000 new jobs, falling unemployment, $20 billion in new development, 52,000 new housing units built or approved, and the arrival of corporate headquarters of General Electric, Reebok, and other multinational firms.

He acknowledged that Boston was ranked the No. 1 city for inequality when he took office. He credited job training programs, union apprenticeships, and a boost in the state minimum wage with reducing inequality by 17 percent since that time and said Boston has fallen to seventh in inequality when it comes to US cities.

“We moved Boston to the forefront of the global economy while at the same time reducing inequality,” said Walsh. “We figured out how we can be a city that’s world class that works for the middle class. That’s a game changer. It’s our strategy, and it’s working in Boston.”

It’s a hopeful message, but Walsh is swimming very much against the tide.

In yesterday’s New York Times, columnist Thomas Edsall said the booming knowledge-based economy in coastal cities like Boston is turning those areas into places of the well-heeled and low-wage service workers, with the middle class increasingly hollowed out.

Edsall quotes from an essay this month in CityLab by well-known urban affairs writer Richard Florida that points to housing costs as the overwhelming driver of inequality in coastal America.

“The rise in housing inequality brings us face to face with a central paradox of today’s increasingly urbanized form of capitalism,” writes Florida. “The clustering of talent, industry, investment, and other economic assets in small parts of cities and metropolitan areas is at once the main engine of economic growth and the biggest driver of inequality. The ability to buy and own housing, much more than income or any other source of wealth, is a significant factor in the growing divides between the economy’s winners and losers.”

For all the worthwhile efforts in job training and other strategies to boost incomes, that housing divide — which is acute and worsening in Boston — describes exactly why being a city that’s both world class and working well for the middle class may be more urban legend than realistic goal.

MICHAEL JONAS


BEACON HILL

Gov. Charlie Baker said State Police abuses on overtime and theft “belong to me.” (State House News Service)

Baker identified 138 communities that he believes should be designated as opportunity zones open to private, tax-free investments under the new federal tax law.. Many of the Gateway Cities are on the list. (MassLive)

Baker said the new criminal justice law will help prevent assassinations of police officers. (WGBH)

Lawmakers load the House budget proposal with funds for local pet projects. (Gloucester Times)

Auditor Suzanne Bump identified $4.38 million in improper drug testing payments by MassHealth over a four-year period. (MassLive)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

A Herald editorial decries the defacing with racist graffiti of a Roxbury store featuring goods made by minority artists.

A Patriot-Ledger editorial condemns Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter’s plan to hire a $90,000-a-year police spokesman the city doesn’t need.

The owner of Epiphany Tower in Springfield paid $33,000 in late fees to the local business improvement district, which should allow a long-stalled hotel project to proceed. (MassLive)

Boston’s City Hall plaza will feature a brew house, an ice cream vendor, and several other attractions this summer. (MassLive)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

In a New York Times op-ed, attorneys Vincent Southerland and Johanna Steinberg say former House speaker John Boehner’s move to join the board of a huge marijuana company, after years of opposition to legalizing pot, underscores the fact that, “As white people make money from marijuana, black people languish in jail for smoking it.”

Harvard legal eagles Alan Dershowitz and Nancy Gertner are throwing it down over what Gertner says is the baseless charge Dershowitz is helping advance that special counsel Robert Mueller had anything to do with the wrongful imprisonment of four people connected to New England organized crime. (Boston Globe)

ELECTIONS

Scot Lehigh reports that high-stakes behind-the-scenes negotiations are going on among various groups pushing three possible November ballot questions that would either boost or deplete state coffers, prompted by legislative leaders who are hoping they can reach a compromise agreement on the issues and drop the ballot efforts. (Boston Globe)

Candidates in the Third Congressional District race weigh in on the federal tax cut package, with some saying it should be repealed, others supporting it, and one trying to split the difference. (Boston Herald)

EDUCATION

The cost of building a new Fuller Middle School in Framingham jumped from around $90 million to $112 million after an auditorium was added to the design and more detail was added to the plans. (Metrowest Daily News)

The State Ethics Commission warned Billerica schools superintendent Tom Piwowar about using school resources to send voters information about a ballot question. (Lowell Sun)

TRANSPORTATION

Ride-hailing apps rule at Logan International Airport, as Uber and Lyft become the No. 1 way of getting to and from the airport. (CommonWealth)

The Baker administration says it is taking steps to ramp up monitoring of commuter rail engineers’ driving records in the wake of a Globe report that scores of engineers have horrible records, including license suspensions. (Boston Globe)

Meanwhile, the Registry of Motor Vehicles mistakenly sent notices to nearly 10,000 drivers telling them their license was about to be suspended for failure to pay outstanding fees. (Boston Globe)

A Worcester city councilor is proposing converting buses into vintage streetcar look-a-likes to link the neighborhoods of the city to the downtown core. (Telegram & Gazette)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The treatment plant for the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District discharged 18.5 million gallons of partially treated sewage and stormwater into the Merrimack River during Monday’s heavy downpours. (Eagle-Tribune)

Fall River is looking for a chunk of offshore wind support businesses to locate on its waterfront. (Herald News)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Weymouth mayor Bob Hedlund rips court officials for an error in which an Uber driver arrested for rape of a passenger was allowed to post bail and apparently flee the country to his native Ghana when he was supposed to have been required to surrender his passport as a condition of any release. (Boston Herald)

MEDIA

Gil Santos, the longtime announcer of New England Patriots games, died on his 80th birthday. (Boston Globe)