At a time when we are swimming in data, there’s no reason for us to be flying blind about a critical piece at the heart of our political debate.
A couple weeks ago, the Colorado Springs Gazette brandished an editorial headline that read, “Polis Wants to Soak the Middle Class.” It cited the Democratic candidate for governor’s proposal to replace the deficit-driving Trump tax cuts, and use those dollars to combat the mounting levels of student debt dragging down our economy.
The allegation that Polis is bad for the middle class will undoubtedly be repeated for the rest for the election, especially since the question of what do about our middle class is among the most deeply resonant in America today. Tragically, we’re likely to argue about who’s right or wrong about this in a largely uninformed debate about who exactly is being hurt and how exactly we help them.
In an effort to change that, the Biden Institute is convening the Biden Challenge to Revitalize the Middle Class this weekend at the University of Delaware. There, voices from across the county will come together to define this pivotal phrase in our political vocabulary, and discuss how exactly we restore America’s great middle class.
Colorado will have a lot to contribute to the discussion. Together with faculty from the University of Colorado Denver, the Bell Policy Center will co-present our research documenting the state of Colorado’s middle class.
If you follow our work, you’ve already heard about our findings. You know how the costs of a middle class life in our state have gone up by about $20,000 per year. The costs that now seem out of reach directly affect the ability to raise a family here.
Wages for certain jobs, particularly those that historically played the role of entry point into a better life, are stubbornly stuck. Compared to 10 years ago, it’s really only those occupations that require a higher degree or certification that allow a family to call themselves “middle class.” The American Dream shouldn’t be so limited.
At the conference, we go beyond these findings and propose solutions. Chief among them? Whoever becomes the next governor of Colorado should use the measures we’ve identified in a performance dashboard that helps us track and improve middle class health in our state.
Our state has used dashboards for all kinds of priorities. For example, we’ve used them to track economic development by looking at broadband availability across the state, regulatory burdens that have been eased, and travel time on our highways. In workforce development, we’ve tracked access to higher education, retention rates in state job programs, and college readiness after high school.
Based on our report, we have the metrics we need to track in a middle class dashboard: Wages in middle-skill occupations; the costs and availability of child care; a tight monitor on levels of student debt and completion rates; and measure of housing costs and availability. All of these are essential ways to see how our middle class is actually doing, and what is or isn’t moving the needle.
From our vantage point, the best place to start is doing more to boost wages. Here in Colorado, the only two groups who have seen their income increase alongside the economy are the bottom and the upper middle. There’s no question our decision to raise the minimum wage is responsible for the movement in the bottom. To level up, the next step is adjusting the overtime threshold to inflation. This way, Coloradans who paid less than $53,000 a year without overtime pay will see a marked uptick in their pay.
Finally, it’s time to get serious about acknowledging the new challenges families face. The ability to afford care for children and parents is now a hallmark of wealthier families. Social benefits like paid leave or retirement savings are less and less common in a fragmented workplace made up of small firms and global corporations.
After this conference, our next task will be to measure, in specific terms, the relationship between taxes and the affordability of life in our state. We need to determine analytically what actually “soaks” the middle class. Do flat tax cuts help middle class families, or do they shift costs that end up drowning them? There’s no reason we shouldn’t have cold, hard numbers informing this discussion instead of ideological principles that simply haven’t proven to be true.
When it comes to restoring the health of our middle class, we can do better than screaming bumper sticker slogans at each other.
This issue is far more nuanced than whether taxes should go up or down. While tax burden can’t be ignored in the financial picture of middle class, it must be balanced with the need to restore critical supports these families count on to prosper. We need a tax policy that uses data from reports like ours to target relief in very specific areas and maintains sufficient revenue by insisting higher earners pay their fair share.
At a time when we are swimming in data and know so much about ourselves and others, there’s no reason for us to be flying blind about this critical piece at the heart of our political debate, one that has the potential to determine the fate of our democracy. Every state in America should have a clear picture of its middle class and use it as a roadmap back to economic health. We’re proud to present Colorado as a model for how research can guide us in this effort.