By Jim Tankersley
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — There are two kinds of middle-class Americans struggling today. There are the people who can't find work or can't work as many hours as they'd like. And there are full-time workers who can't seem to get ahead.
In Tuesday's State of the Union and its response, there wasn't much for either group — at least when it comes to their biggest problem.
Both speeches talked about the need for faster economic growth. There was a time that would have been enough. But not today.
In the past three recoveries from recession, U.S. growth has not produced anywhere close to the job and income gains that previous generations of workers enjoyed. The wealthy continued to do well. But a point of increased growth today simply delivers fewer jobs across the economy and less money in the pockets of middle-class families than an identical point of growth produced in the 40 years after the Second World War.
This erosion between growth and the prosperity of average Americas is still vexing economists and a lot of lawmakers have yet to even acknowledge the problem. But repairing this link is arguably the most critical policy challenge for anyone who wants to lift the middle class.
President Obama alluded to this breakdown in his State of the Union address. "Every day," he said, "we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?"
But outside of some targeted help for manufacturing jobs and some new investments in skills training, the proposals Obama offered focused comparatively little on repairing the relationship between growth and jobs, or growth and income. Obama's boldest plans included increasing the minimum wage and guaranteeing every child a preschool education. Both aim largely to boost poorer Americans and help their children gain a better shot at landing the higher-paying jobs.