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On Thursday, Nov. 5, University of Massachusetts Journalism professor Ralph Whitehead took part in a panel with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss economic issues facing the middle class.

Vice President Biden invited six speakers to sit on the panel that discussed the challenges America’s middle-class faces in the modern economy as a part of the White House Task Force’s ongoing study regarding middle-class families. The Vice President invited Whitehead; Isabel Sawhill, a co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings; Heather Boushey, a senior economist for the Center for American Progress; Jim Kessler, a co-founder of the Third Way; Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute and Melody Barnes, the White House Director of the Domestic Policy Council.

At the 90-minute event, the panelists spoke on economic developments and trends that have affected middle-class families in recent decades, including the shift of gender roles in the work force, the increased gap between labor force productivity and wages and the need for work-life balance in the current economy.

To open the event, Vice President Biden welcomed all who were in attendance and introduced the speakers.

Having known Professor Ralph Whitehead for 22 years, Biden said in his introduction, “Ralph’s historical roots, his understanding of the evolving aspirations and progress of the American middle-class enabled him to be a very early observer of the difficult challenges that started to build for these families over the past decades.” The Vice President went on to joke about how long they have known each other saying, “I met Ralph 20 years, 25 years ago – God you’re getting old.”

When the discussion began, the tone shifted from joking to a more serious tone. Whitehead made his opening statements first on the changes that have occurred in the middle class over the past few decades. Since the 1980s, the average American income has increased by 34 percent while the gross domestic product grew by 418 percent. Citing the different economic efforts of presidential administrations from Reagan to Obama, Whitehead said, “now we have an administration that has driven a stake in the ground and said: No more neglect. We’re going to deal with this.”

The panel shifted to speak on the changing roles of women in the workforce when Heather Boushe made her opening statement.

Opening with the line, “I have one point that I want to leave you with today – that most women are either their families’ breadwinner or co-breadwinner, fundamentally alters the challenges facing middle-class families.”

Boushe spoke on the effect women moving from the home to the workforce has on American society, stating that it affects nearly everything in daily life. With only one in five families having a stay at home mother with a father working as the sole breadwinner, she called for a need for society to adapt in the realms of education and geriatric care. She spoke of the need for the middle-class family to work more, leading them to live by the phrase “time is money” – money she said, is what makes them stay afloat.

Near the end of the discussion, Biden asked the question, “How can one define middle-class?”

Whitehead said, “30 years ago, people had a pretty good idea of what they meant when they used the term middle-class.” He added, “At that time if you had looked at a map of the distribution of income in the United States, you would have seen that there was a great big lump of people in the middle of that distribution. If you looked at a map of the income distribution today, you wouldn’t see as big a lump in the middle. You’d see there are more people at the top and the bottom than there used to be.

“While others would say you’re middle class if your household income is above a certain dollar figure but below a certain higher dollars figure, I don’t particularly care for that definition,” continued Whitehead. “If I were asked to come up with a definition of the middle-class, I would say you are a member of the middle-class or better if you are able to finance a comfortable retirement. The percentage of people in this country who are able to do that today is significantly lower than 20 years ago.”

In an interview with the Daily Collegian, Whitehead later wished the event could have covered the issue of access to higher education, particularly for children whose parents didn’t attend colleges themselves.

“When I began teaching here [at UMass] in the fall of 1973, a lot of my students were the sons and daughters of parents who had not themselves completed a four-year degree,” said Whitehead. “Today, the percentage of students who fit that profile is a lot smaller.”

He explained that though 60 percent of teenagers in America grow up in households run by adults without university degrees, only approximately 35 percent of first year students in universities represent this background.

Whitehead explained that real change will come from months of the White House Task Force’s work.

“There will be a report released by the Task Force, which will be based on months of study and discussion, including this past one.” Reflecting on the accomplishments of the panel, Whitehead noted that “It’s not likely the event by itself is going to rescue the middle class.” He added jokingly, “If we did think like that, we could just keep holding events.”

Michelle Williams can be reached at mnwillia@student.umass.edu.

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