In last Wednesday’s presidential debate, President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney tried to outdo one another in explaining how their policies would help the middle class. In their thirty references to the middle class, the two candidates mostly debated who was or was not going to raise taxes on the middle class, but Romney also pointed out how middle class families are suffering as a result of the slow economic recovery, and Obama claimed that health care reform was beneficial to the middle class.
This focus on the middle class is especially striking when contrasted with the lack of emphasis on the poor. There were only four mentions of the poor and one of poverty. Although Romney mentioned that one out of six Americans is in poverty, neither candidate laid out a plan for what to do about that fact. As commentators noted, Obama did not criticize Romney’s recently exposed comments about the “47 percent” of Americans supposedly dependent on government, “who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing” and who do not “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Unlike his running mate Paul Ryan, Romney did not attempt to justify his policy proposals in terms of a “preferential option for the poor” (I offer a brief communitarian critique of Ryan here, and Gerald Beyer offers a progressive liberal one here, but at least Ryan felt the need to justify his policy in this way, while Romney did not).
What accounts for this focus on the middle class at the expense of the poor? I believe there are at least two reasons. First, it is good electoral politics (and perennial, as this 2008 blog post with the same title by blogger “DarwinCatholic” attests). According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center, fifty-three percent of Americans identify themselves as middle class, and if one includes those who identified as “upper-middle” or “lower-middle,” the total is a whopping ninety-one percent. Disconcertingly, thirty-three percent of people with incomes over $150,000 (which is easily in the top 20% of household incomes) identify as middle class, and forty-one percent of households with incomes less than $20,000 reported being middle class (the poverty level for a family of four in 2011 was $23,000). According to Pew, the numbers identifying as middle class are similar across ethnic groups, “even though members of minority groups who say they are middle class have far less income and wealth than do whites who say they are middle class.” Therefore when Obama and Romney appeal to the “middle class,” they are appealing to almost everybody (whether their policies will actually benefit such a broad range of the population is another matter).
Second, both candidates believe that a strong middle class is beneficial to all Americans. As Obama said in the debate, “I believe that we do best when the middle class is doing well.” Also, echoing what is normally a Republican talking point, Obama asserted that those who are not middle class can still support his policies because they strive to be middle class. There is some truth to this belief that “what’s good for the middle class is good for the country,” to paraphrase Charles Erwin Wilson. Small business owners provide opportunities for employment, and middle-class consumers provide the demand that keeps the economy humming. Middle-income earners pay taxes that provide public goods and social services for the poor.
Still, Catholic social teaching demands a “preferential option for the poor,” not for the middle class, a commitment also shared by other Christians. This doctrine means that the health of a society must be measured by how it treats its poor. As the United States bishops wrote in Economic Justice for All, “The obligation to provide justice for all means that the poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation” (#86).
Clearly a strong middle class is necessary, but both candidates’ policies seem to put the focus on economic growth without adequate attention to the true good of every person. Pope Paul VI makes this point in his apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens: “The quality and the truth of human relations, the degree of participation and of responsibility, are no less significant and important for the future of society than the quantity and variety of the goods produced and consumed” (#41). We cannot assume that policies aimed at middle-class well-being and economic growth will help the poor. Obama has accused Romney of “top-down economics,” and Romney coined the term “trickle-down government” to characterize Obama’s policies; both of these criticisms hit the mark when it comes to the candidates’ policies on poverty. Without specific plans for how economic growth can be translated into increasing opportunities and assets for the poor, we risk reinforcing the inequalities and structural injustices faced by the poor.
For this reason, despite the claims to the contrary, a middle class-focused policy is a form of the “class warfare” so decried in political rhetoric. As Pope Pius XI wisely noted in Quadragesimo Anno (1931), no class can claim for itself alone the creation of society’s wealth (#53). Catholic social teaching has long exhibited what the British would call a “one nation” philosophy: the classes must work together in a spirit of solidarity for the common good. Although this philosophy recognizes that inequality will not be eliminated, it also believes that gross inequalities should be minimized and that the poor and working classes should have an adequate living standard, giving them an equitable stake in the social order.
This generally conservative principle of organic unity sits in fruitful tension with the preferential option for the poor in the Catholic social tradition. The preferential option, only introduced into Catholic social teaching after the 1968 conference of Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, still finds traces in the tradition as early as Pope Leo XIII’s statement in Rerum Novarum (1891) that “The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government” (#37). Rather than promoting class conflict, as was alleged during the controversy over liberation theology in the 1970s and 1980s, the preferential option insists that as social life evolves, constant effort must be made to ensure the well-being of the poor precisely in order to preserve a proper harmony in society.
In response to our candidates’ lack of focus on the poor, Catholics should work to create a bipartisan consensus in favor of the poor. A majority of Americans believe that the government should provide a social safety net (although the number is declining), so we should work to ensure adequate funding for programs that assist the poor. We should also work to strengthen families across the classes, given conservative concerns about the correlation between family breakdown and poverty. The guiding principle of this consensus should be putting the poor front and center through policies that promote the true common good.