Commentary

Fluidity and Mobility

It's time to redefine what it means to be middle class.

The so-called middle class has been a target of politicians ever since it became a recognizable voting block. Unfortunately, the term is less and less meaningful for understanding the nation’s political dynamics, particularly in a nation whose core values are grounded in an organic concept of economic opportunity rather than a static concept of security. As U.S. citizens go to the voting booths in November, the core political fight might not be over protecting the middle class but over which candidates are most likely to provide better opportunities for a newly defined middle class.

Traditionally, then, the debate is less about preserving a specific economic group as about ensuring that those who are not in that iconic midsection of the national income distribution can get to a higher level. Our Founding Fathers designed our political institutions so that our economy and communities would be open and dynamic; it’s more important that you can get to where you want to go than whether you have already gotten to your destination. A big part of the current national political debate, set in the shadow of the stagnant recovery of the Great Recession, is over whether that dynamism is even possible.

Traditionalists have argued that dynamic, open-market economies are the most dependable institutions for vaulting individuals and households to a coveted level of income security, whether through entrepreneurship, homeownership, steady employment or the financial cushion of a pension or savings account. Now, these staples of social stability appear to be in jeopardy. That doesn’t mean the aspirations have gone away, or that these aspirations don’t motivate Americans in the workplace or the ballot box. Quite the opposite. The quest for economic opportunity, aspiring to enter the ranks of a new middle class, is in our cultural DNA.

The danger lies in thinking of the middle class as a static concept, an objectively defined benchmark of personal and familial achievement. In the mid-20th century, a middle-class lifestyle-a home, savings account, car, even a television-could be achieved through relatively low-skilled jobs at automobile, textile, or steel plants. In the 21st century, these manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and it’s the information technology, financial advisers and communications specialists who have the monopoly on economic opportunity. A television might have been an aspiration of the 1950s and 1960s, but in the 2000s it’s more likely to be the iPod, iPad or Xbox.

Dynamic economies and societies will always need a middle class because it represents what can be achieved. The national political debate may really be about whether the old way of securing these opportunities-through markets and individual freedom-is preferable to another way that embraces the heavy organizational hand of government.

Samuel R. Staley is the director of urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation and co-author of Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century. This article originally appeared at NPR.org. This column previously appeared at Reason.com.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.