An economic agenda for the forgotten Americans in a divided nation

cover image for sawhill piece

Widening inequality and the loss of jobs to trade and technology have left many American workers feeling disenfranchised and skeptical of government and corporations alike. These economic shifts are changing what it means—and feels like—to be middle class in America. Brookings Senior Fellow Isabel Sawhill focused on the group dubbed the “forgotten Americans”—those without a college degree who make less than $70,000 a year—in researching and writing her new book, “The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation.”

On October 10, the Future of the Middle Class Initiative at Brookings hosted Governors John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and John Kasich (R-Ohio) for a discussion on who these “forgotten Americans” are, what they want, and how to give it to them. Senior Fellow Richard Reeves, director of the Future of the Middle Class Initiative, moderated their discussion.

Middle class workers fear they will lose their jobs to automation

Governor Hickenlooper spoke about the fear that surrounds the rise in automation. Many middle class workers worry that their job will be replaced by machines in the coming years. However, Hickenlooper noted that by training workers the job displacement and disappearance caused by automation can largely be mitigated. He also emphasized the importance of preparing the workforce for the coming changes, saying, “We’ve got to get to a place where we can react much more rapidly to the changes.”

Bipartisan solutions are needed

Governor Kasich noted the importance of reaching bipartisan compromise and refraining from living on the extremes of each party. He explained that by deciding on guiding principles that everyone can agree on, it becomes easier to work out the details necessary to create a solution. “What are the principles today?” he asked. “Start with common principles and then you can build it out.”

The 2016 election brought attention to those being left behind

After the governors spoke, Brookings Senior Fellow Isabel Sawhill took the stage to discuss her newest book, “The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nations.” In her overview, Sawhill discussed how the 2016 election shed light on the influence of forgotten Americans. Looking at a racial breakdown of the Forgotten Americans, Sawhill notes that about half of them are white, and that many white Forgotten Americans voted for President Trump. She stressed that the current divisive climate of the U.S. has led to a rift in economics, culture, and politics.

From her conversations with Americans in Missouri, New York, and North Carolina, Sawhill learned about beliefs that are driving their political leanings. The forgotten Americans are largely skeptical of college, cynical about the government, , importantly, want to be self-supporting.

Many Americans don’t realize how much they use government services

After Sawhill’s presentation on her research findings, she was joined on stage by moderator Ruth Marcus from the Washington Post, Brookings Senior Fellow Elaine Kamarck, Editor at Large of the Weekly Standard Bill Kristol, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at UnidosUS Eric Rodriguez, and Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Kamarck, returning to a point that Sawhill made during her earlier presentation, noted that the government is not, in fact, wholly broken. Mentioning the dependability of Social Security checks and Medicare payments, Kamarck said that most Americans do not realize how the government helps them until the government shuts down. “I think we have a big messaging failure when it comes to what the government does,” Kamarck said.

The middle class of color is often overlooked

Eric Rodriguez of UnidosUS emphasized the role that race plays among forgotten Americans, noting that people of color are often left out of conversations about the economic divide. He said the idea of mandatory national service was one of the most important of Sawhill’s policy proposals because of its ability to both humanize and benefit communities. Rodriguez also brought up the role of immigrants in the United States, which policymakers often overlook despite the large and growing numbers of children with undocumented parents.

For more on this subject, read Sawhill’s new essay “What the forgotten Americans really want—and how to give it to them.”

Event audio, video, and a transcript are available here.

Megan Drake and Mary Bernard contributed to this post.