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Real Class War Is Working to Keep Those Below You Down

Contrary to popular belief, the United States is not a meritocracy, and amid cries of class warfare, Americans are getting the worst of both worlds.

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Another major factor is the decline in organized labor and solid, good-paying manufacturing jobs. Those jobs once represented another bootstrap that is now disappearing.

There’s also an inverse relationship between how robust a country’s social safety net is and the degree to which working families face the prospect of downward mobility. For example, countries that have generous unemployment benefits show a clear trend: offering displaced workers more assistance (a) extends the period of unemployment (which tends to be the focus of most conservatives) and (b) also means that when working people do reenter the workforce, they do so at a higher average wage.

There’s a similar dynamic in terms of health care: people with access to paid sick leave and other health benefits switch jobs less frequently than those who don’t enjoy those bennies, and as a result, they have longer average tenure and higher earnings.

In these areas, the United States has felt Jacob Hacker’s “great risk shift.” Hacker described how the U.S. “framework of security has unraveled, leaving Americans newly exposed to the harshest risks of our turbulent economy: losing a good job, losing health care, losing retirement savings, losing a home—in short, losing a stable, financial footing.” All of those hardships offer unique opportunities to fall out of the middle class—opportunities for downward mobility that simply don’t exist for the Canadian or French worker, people who can rely on a more progressive state to help preserve their income levels when disaster strikes.

Ultimately, the take-away from the decline in American upward mobility is that the existence of a middle class is not a natural phenomenon. It was created by providing good quality public education, mandating minimum wages, and guaranteeing working people the right to organize.

Conservatives have spent the last three decades unraveling those kinds of protections—all have been subjected to death “by a thousand small cuts” since Reaganomics hit the United States. As a result, it has once again become true that the accident of one’s birth dictates one’s life chances to a very large degree, and that is a wholly predictable result of the rise of the conservative backlash.

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