The Meanings of Mobility:

Checking the New Pressure Points on the Middle Class When President Obama delivered an address at Osawatomie, Kansas, in December 2011, he credited the values of hard work and responsibility with helping America overcome the Great Depression at home in the 1930s and fascism abroad in the 1940s. After those triumphs, he contended the same dispositions “gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known.” Today, however, “the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people.” We confront, as a result, “a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.” At stake, the president declared, is whether “working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.”[1] One doesn’t rise far in our democratic politics, certainly not all the way to the White House, without a talent for discerning and addressing citizens’ worries. President Obama correctly pointed out that widespread fears of falling, combined with fatalistic doubts about the prospects of rising, are much older than the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession. A 1989 article by Nicholas Lemann reported that in Naperville, an upper middle-class suburb west of Chicago, “the word ‘stress’ came up constantly in conversations. People felt that they had to work harder than people a generation ago in order to have a good middle-class life.” Lemann connects this sentiment to an idea that “holds sway” in “much of the rest of the country”: The “middle class is downwardly mobile and its members will never live as well as their parents did. . . . The feeling is that anyone who becomes prosperous has beaten the odds.”[2] The president also correctly reflected the popular belief that the three decades after the end of World War II were a go
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