Taking the Financial Temperature of the Middle Class

Democrats in Congress are holding several hearings about pressures on middle class families.

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FRANK LANGFITT: I'm Frank Langfitt in Washington.

The tone on Capitol Hill today was completely different than the one President Bush struck on Wall Street. Democrats devoted three separate hearings to the plight of America's middle class. They were reaching out to what some call suburban populists, or Lou Dobbs Democrats. Those are voters worried about their economic future and ones Democrats think helped them win control of Congress. Today, Democrats reached out to them with populist rhetoric and promises.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: We're going to really focus on these middle class issues and what matters.

CHARLES SCHUMER: The fact is that the middle class has never been so unsure of its footing since I came to Congress in -

JACOB HACKER: Over the last generation, economic risk has shifted onto the fragile finances of American families.

LANGFITT: That was Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, fellow Democrat Charles Schumer from New York and one of the panelists, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker. Democrats hoped that addressing middle class worries could help them build on their majority and win the White House next year. During the hearings, they said they understood what the middle class is going through. Here's Senator Klobuchar ticking off the concerns of voters back home.

KLOBUCHAR: In Minnesota, this is what I heard for the last two years. It's about rising health care cost since tuition at the University of Minnesota up 80 percent in seven years. We had gas prices, as you know, up towards three bucks a gallon this summer. And for people that are living and two-income families barely getting by, it was getting harder and harder for them to make.

LANGFITT: At the same hearing, Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve and Princeton economics professor, blamed the government for part of the middle class squeeze. He said political leaders have failed to help lower skilled and less educated workers as their wages began to lag.

ALAN BLINDER: As the market forces turned ferociously against the middle class and the poor, the government piled on by enacting tax cuts for the rich, while permitting large holes to develop in the social safety net. We're about to have the Super Bowl - in football we call that unnecessary roughness and we penalize at 15 yards.

LANGFITT: But another panelist, Richard Vedder, challenged the whole notion that the middle class was having trouble keeping up. Vedder teaches economic at Ohio University.

RICHARD VEDDER: Never has a society had a middle class more used to what once were considered goods and services available only to the uber rich. Middle-income people today live in larger homes, buy more gadgets, like iPods and cell phones. I just returned two days ago from a trip to the Caribbean on a cruise, traveling less with business executives or even elite Ivy League professors than with equipment salesmen, butchers and teachers, ordinary folk. That just simply didn't happen 30 years ago.

LANGFITT: Democrats said today's hearings were timed to coincide with the release of the gross domestic product number, not to rebut President Bush on Wall Street. Jacob Hacker, the Yale political scientist, is glad Congress is spending so much time on the concerns of the middle class. But he also said populist complaint has its limits. As Democrats move forward, he thinks they should focus less on the problems facing the middle class and more on practical ways to solve them.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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