Building a wall won't save America's crumbling middle class

Story highlights

  • Elizabeth Warren and daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi say it's not building a wall but investing in America's people that will make a difference
  • They say it took conscious policy to create a strong middle class, we can do it again

Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, is the senior senator from Massachusetts. Her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, is the co-founder and president of Business Talent Group, a global consulting marketplace, and chairman of Demos, a nonprofit public policy organization. They are the authors of "The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are (Still) Going Broke," from which parts of this article are adapted The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

(CNN)America's middle class is starting to crumble.

When we delivered that message in a book called "The Two-Income Trap" back in 2003, it seemed fairly shocking. Today, not so much.
A dozen years ago, if anyone thought about it at all, they seemed to think that America's middle class was pretty close to invulnerable. Solid and invincible — and maybe even a little dull. After all, our middle class had survived wars, scandals, epidemics and a Great Depression. Surely it could survive whatever the 21st century had to throw at us.
Elizabeth Warren
Amelia Warren Tyagi
Even when reports surfaced about rising levels of economic pain, there was a story to explain it — a very comfortable story that made it easier to ignore the bad news. Books, newscasts and breathless five-part series in the local paper came to the same conclusion as your Aunt Edith, the guy in the next office, and pretty much everyone else: Americans are in trouble because they are overspending! Just look at all those Nike sneakers and big-screen TVs. The malls are jam-packed, dog leashes are studded with rhinestones, and everyone — everyone! — has a microwave.
Rising health-care costs? Job insecurity? Climbing foreclosures? (Yes, back in 2003 they were already climbing.) Plug your fingers in your ears, la-la-la I can't hear you. The message was clear: Everything is great. And, if it isn't so great for you personally, then it's your own dang fault.

Signs of trouble

In our book, we rejected this story. We told a story of families with no savings, mountains of credit card debt, and mortgages that were out of sight. A story of flat-lining incomes, disappearing jobs, skyrocketing health-care costs and overwhelming college costs. A story of greedy Wall Street banks that made families' financial dealings as risky as swimming with sharks — big sharks. A story about a government unable, or unwilling, to rein in the powerful and make investments that would expand opportunities for all of America's kids. A story of families that played by the rules, hit a bump, and ended up with nothing. And we backed it all up with hard data.
Fast-forward 13 years. "The Two-Income Trap" has just been re-issued. The shock factor is long gone.
Home ownership has dropped to its lowest rate since 1967, and one in every three American families is dealing with a debt collector.
Middle-class-in-perilous-trouble has migrated from "That can't be!" to "No kidding."
And now, the middle class is fighting for its life. The good news is in this election year, pretty much everyone is paying attention. Finally, finally the pressure on America' middle class is a center-of-the-plate issue.
The bad news is -- well, it's everywhere.
The problems facing the middle-class family are complex and far-reaching, and the solutions must be, too. We wish there could be a simple silver bullet, but after a generation of relentless assault, there just isn't.
When we wrote "The Two-Income Trap," we were shocked and deeply disturbed about what was happening to the middle class. Now we're angry. But we want that anger to mean something.
We want that anger to translate into real changes. When candidates for office give simplistic answers — keep out the Mexicans or blame the Muslims — they insult everyone who is fighting to survive in a rigged game.
Instead of digging in on the hard problems that need work, instead of figuring out how to deal with $3 trillion in deferred infrastructure repairs or how to reduce $1.2 trillion of student loan debt, these candidates offer snake oil, and America's middle class can't get stronger on a diet of snake oil.
But there is one overriding idea. Together we can. It's time to say it out loud: a generation of I-got-mine policy-making has failed -- failed miserably, completely and overwhelmingly. And it's time to change direction before the entire middle class has been replaced by hundreds of millions of Americans relentlessly tumbling down an economic mountain.

What we can do

America's middle class was built through investments in education, infrastructure and research — and by making sure we all have a safety net.
We need to strengthen those building blocks:
  • Step up investments in public education.
  • Rein in the cost of college and cut outstanding student loan debt.
  • Establish universal preschool and affordable child care.
  • Upgrade infrastructure — mass transit, energy, communications — to make it easier to build good, middle-class jobs here in America.
  • Recognize that the modern economy can be perilous, so that a stronger safety net is needed now more than ever.
  • Strengthen disability coverage, retirement coverage and paid sick leave.
  • And for heaven's sake, put a strong cop on Wall Street so banks can't build entire businesses on cheating people.
America's strong middle class was not a natural resource, like deep rivers or giant forests. It was not an accident of history or a gift bestowed by a generous king. It was something we built together, something we cultivated with patient investments and thoughtful policies, and something we once nourished and made stronger over time.
We can do it again. We can build a country that works, not just for some of our children, but for all of our children. We can, and we must.