If you, dear reader, happen to be in this group, I’m not trying to dismiss your economic anxieties. I know that you may not feel rich. You probably have big mortgage payments, rising medical costs and perhaps eye-popping tuition bills.
But I’d ask you to spend a minute thinking about how much more challenging life is for the bottom 90 percent. These households aren’t making six-figure incomes, and they have received only meager raises over the past few decades. They aren’t receiving their fair share of the country’s economic growth. No wonder so many feel frustrated.
And for too long, the country’s economic policy, even under Democrats, has blurred the distinction between the upper middle class and the actual middle class.
In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both used $250,000 as the upper limit of the middle class. (Even in the New York area, $250,000 in pre-tax income puts a household in the top 10 percent.) Obama then delivered a tax cut for everyone below that cutoff. In the 2016 campaign, Clinton and Sanders used the same definition.
A better approach exists. Politicians should recognize that there are three broad income groups, not just two. The bottom 90 percent of Americans does deserve a tax cut, to lift its stagnant incomes. The top 1 percent deserves a substantial tax increase. The upper middle class deserves neither. Its taxes should remain roughly constant, just as its share of economic output has.
So here’s some good news: The 2020 Democratic candidates are moving in this direction.
Kamala Harris’s big tax cut applies only to families making less than $100,000. Elizabeth Warren’s child-care proposal delivers 99 percent of its benefits to the bottom 90 percent of earners, according to Moody’s Analytics. The housing plans from Harris and Cory Booker give all their benefits to the bottom 90 percent, according to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy. The tax cut from Sherrod Brown, who’s a potential candidate, is likewise focused on the middle class and poor.
Ro Khanna, a Silicon Valley congressman who co-wrote Brown’s tax plan, has a useful way of thinking about this. “Our priority has to be the working poor and those struggling to make it into the middle class,” Khanna told me. “What do the upper middle class care most about in my district? They want a pluralistic America that is engaged with the world and embraces technology and future industries. What they don’t want is a backlash to diversity, a backlash to globalization, a backlash to technology.”