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Romano: The vanishing middle class should be more alarming

Lucas Overby, a Libertarian candidate for U.S. House District 13: “You hear a lot about the gap in income equality. The gap is supposed to be filled by middle earners. They don’t exist anymore. They’re mostly being pushed down to low wage or unemployed.’’

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Lucas Overby, a Libertarian candidate for U.S. House District 13: “You hear a lot about the gap in income equality. The gap is supposed to be filled by middle earners. They don’t exist anymore. They’re mostly being pushed down to low wage or unemployed.’’

One of the candidates said something outrageous at a congressional debate last week.

It was blunt. And ominous. It was the kind of statement that should have made everyone on the stage and in the audience wonder about the implications.

And yet there were no followup mentions. It led to no commercials, and no news conferences about the candidate's fitness for office.

Part of the reason is that Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby was the speaker, and polls indicate he is not a strong threat to win next week's election.

Another reason is there was little to dispute.

Outrageous or not, he was correct.

"You hear a lot about the gap in income equality,'' Overby said in response to a question about whether it felt like we were still in a recession. "The gap is supposed to be filled by middle earners. They don't exist anymore. They're mostly being pushed down to low wage or unemployed.''

Now you can quibble over whether he overstated the problem. Obviously, the middle class has not ceased to exist.

But there is a growing pool of evidence that today's middle class is weaker, smaller and more endangered than ever.

"My wages have been stagnant for years. Wages for the guys who work with me have been stagnant,'' said Overby, taking a break from his work as a commercial diver on Monday. "There are a lot of people in the same situation finding that life is getting harder and harder because our bills keep getting more expensive and wages are getting smaller.

"There are 16 of us in the company I work for, and by the end of the week we're all scraping our pennies together. It's sad to think that you have all of these skilled labor jobs and people are still living paycheck to paycheck.''

The evidence is not just anecdotal. Two recent studies prove the income equality gap has become as alarming as it feels.

The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, said income for Florida's top 1 percent grew by more than 200 percent from 1979 to 2007. The rest of the state grew at 14 percent. In 1979, that top 1 percent accounted for about 12 percent of the state's income. Today, they're closer to 25 percent.

A separate report released last week by the nonpartisan LeRoy Collins Institute said the "hollowing out'' of middle-wage jobs in Florida was worse than the rest of the country.

In other words, it seems like all of the tax breaks, incentives and sweetheart deals given to corporations lead to low-paying jobs for you and fancier homes for the CEOs.

Overby said spending by his opponents and outside committees — which has risen above $8 million and could eclipse $10 million in a county where the median household income is about $46,000 — is a stark example of that gap.

"I do think there is a strong disconnect,'' Overby said. "A lot of people are disillusioned and, the lower you get in the income tax bracket, even disgusted by it.''

Even if you don't want to slog through the economic reports, there is still something remarkable about this. A congressional candidate sat on a stage and suggested the middle class is disappearing in Florida.

And no one batted an eye.

Romano: The vanishing middle class should be more alarming 03/03/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 3, 2014 7:11pm]

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