People accept free food at food bank in Brooklyn

Free food is distributed to residents in need at a weekly food bank at Our Lady of Refuge Church in Brooklyn on February 28, 2024 in New York City.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

We Must Break the Oligarchy's Grip to End Economic Anxiety for So Many Americans

In our country, working-middle class and working-class people are feeling increasingly unsafe. We must face this fact, not hide from it.

Our economic model generates and conflates two conditions that burden working people. The first is “economic adversity.” The second is “economic anxiety.’’

Economic Adversity

The data shows that our economic model produces chronic economic adversity for large numbers of working-class and working-middle class people every four to seven years.

The corporate media often presents incomplete numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

For example, functional unemployment numbers from the Ludwig Institute of Shared Prosperity (LISEP) tracks the percentage of the U.S. labor force that does not have a full-time job (35+ hours a week), but wants one, has no job, or does not earn a living wage, conservatively pegged at $20,000 annually before taxes. In February 2024, the functional unemployment rate was 24.9 percent.

The BLS number was 3.7 percent.

Our economic model creates the conditions for large swaths of working middle-class and working-class people to live with chronic anxiety that they will lose their employment and their lives will plunge into crisis.

Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) measures household essentials for families in the U.S. In 2021, their index reported 41 percent of households in the U.S. were below the ALICE Threshold of Poverty; 29 percent of ALICE households earned just above the federal poverty level.

Compare the ALICE numbers to a BLS report in November 2023. It stated that 12 percent of Americans lived below the official poverty level in 2021.

The Census Bureau published a report in September 2023. It stated that the number of Americans living in poverty was 12 percent in 2022.

ALICE reported the percentage of American households living below or just above the poverty line is an unconscionable 70 percent.

Economic Anxiety

Economic anxiety is more subtle and ubiquitous than economic adversity. To better understand economic anxiety, it is important to review Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.”

Psychologist Abraham Maslow created a “Hierarchy of Needs” in 1954. In the hierarchy, one element stands out as foundational in developing a healthy society. That element is “safety.” Safety is a need that must be fulfilled before other elements of living can be addressed. Maslow asserted that people want to experience order, predictability, and control in their lives.

At the foundation of the hierarchy is basic “Physiological Needs.” These are breathing, food, water, shelter, and sleep.

The next level that lists the first social association is “Safety and Security.” This level lists health, employment, property, family, and social ability.

Clearly, the principal need that allows all other needs to be realized is employment. For most working people, a job must provide the requisite conditions to reach the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.

Feeling safe allows people to think about other aspirations. In our country, working-middle class and working-class people are feeling increasingly unsafe.

It is plausible that some working people support Mr. Trump’s views because he promises a return to tradition and stability. Unfortunately, that iteration of tradition and stability was often realized with considerable measures of discrimination, exclusion and inequality. Stability without inclusion is impossible. Accepting social differences without necessarily approving of them is considered healthy by psychological standards, but is absent in the MAGA worldview.

Exclusion is foundational to white, Christian, male supremacy. It is Mr. Trump’s scabrous version of tradition and stability. It is antithetical to the traditional written values in the Constitution. Stability is a promise in that extraordinary document for its time.

The effects of economic anxiety are different from economic adversity.

For example, millennials are a highly educated demographic that identify as working middle class. A report in June 2023 from the Real Estate Witch concluded that 90 percent of millennials have nonmortgage debt, owing an average of $90,590. About 70 percent of millennials are currently “living paycheck to paycheck.”

Yet, another example of economic anxiety that permeates through working-middle class demographics was in a report by Statista in November 2023; it showed that 40 percent of college graduates were underemployed.

Lastly, a study published this January in The Lancet journal reported that people who attained a higher level of education extended their life expectancy. What stood out is that people who attained a higher level of education were able to earn more which allowed them to afford a lifestyle that was healthier. Again, economic anxiety was largely removed from people with adequate resources.

The study also found that: “Married individuals benefit in terms of emotional and social support, pooled economic resources, engagement in preventive care, and healthier lifestyles.” It is pooled resources that allow couples to live healthier lifestyles.

This raises the issue of our economic model excluding masses of Americans from healthy lifestyles; no one should be denied the opportunity to be healthy and live a long life.

Losing Status Implications

The best-known study of status loss was published in the estimable “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS) in April 2018.

The PNAS study concluded that “losing status” was the determining factor for much of Mr. Trump’s support by white working people in the 2016 election.

However, the conclusions do not address the wider ramifications of “losing status.”

Status in this context has an undeclared economic basis. In our culture, it is primarily about material acquisition. Material acquisition brings some status; without it often brings subtle or not so subtle derision from others, and self-loathing. The idiom “keeping up with the Joneses” reflects the sentiment of conspicuous consumption by acquisition.

Our economic model creates the conditions for large swaths of working middle-class and working-class people to live with chronic anxiety that they will lose their employment and their lives will plunge into crisis.

Poverty Assistance Context

An issue rarely questioned is the occasional legislation that appears to improve the lives of considerable numbers of working people. For example, the Biden Administration proclaims the success of the Child Tax Credit among several programs that benefit working people.

In January Congress passed a revision of the Child Tax Credit.

According to estimates, it would lift approximately 16 million children out of poverty which is a considerable number.

However, there is an issue ignored by the corporate media and often the small numbers of progressive media. That is the actual living conditions of those 16 million children and their families. It is not exactly worth throwing a parade as a real accomplishment.

As we see from the numbers above, many millions of Americans live below or just above the poverty line. Government programs, however well-intentioned, temporarily ameliorate people’s lives but serve to maintain a structure of near poverty and poverty in perpetuity.

An excellent program that exposes the paucity of programs for poor Americans is the Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) Family Budget Calculator. The Calculator shows the amount of income required to live a modest lifestyle in any area of the country by housing, food, childcare, transportation, other necessities, and taxes.

For example, in the Springfield, Massachusetts metro area, a working family of two parents and two children would require $110,472 to meet an “adequate” standard of living.

In the Selby County, Alabama area, the amount required is $107,568.

In the Charleston/North Charleston, South Carolina area, the amount is $102,369.

In the Dallas, Texas Metro area, the amount required is $101,877.

In the Fresno, California area, the amount required is $100,676.

In the Portland/Vancouver/Hillsboro, Oregon area, the amount required is $128,808.

An “adequate” cost of living across the United States is beyond the reach of a massive majority of Americans.

Health care is particularly devastating for Americans. The Commonwealth Fund published a report inOctober. It found that in the U.S. 51 percent of adults between 19 and 64 years of age and their families had difficulties in affording health care costs.


We must think beyond the narrow, obvious interest of "economic adversity" and include "economic anxiety.”

Economic anxiety appears to be a chronic component for both demographics.

Any study not addressing the subtle question of what economic anxiety actually means to working people is truncated.

We must think beyond the narrow, obvious interest of "economic adversity" and include "economic anxiety.”

Union negotiations traditionally concentrate on wages, salaries, and healthcare. These negotiations are essential and act as vital pressure points on our economic model. Perhaps it is time to recognize the undemocratic components our economic model and its chronic dehumanizing results for so many.

Don’t Mourn, Organize

History does not travel in a straight line. Our economic model is failing working people in many ways, all readily documented.

To borrow the title from a powerful Russian novel in 1863, What Is To Be Done?

There is no magic formula or singular plan that will turn the present trajectory of our economic model to sudden epiphanies of justice, fairness and morality.

Progressives from particularly faith-based organizations must form alliances and coalitions with each other and secular organizations. The downward trajectory of our economic model continues below the surface despite the distracting clamor from the corporate media. Regardless of those distortions and politicians’ puffery, the U.S. economy is no longer the hegemonic world economy. That appears to be China or will be soon.

The strategy of the obscenely wealthy is simple: control the media, the courts, and political system with scads of resources. Just read the Republican Party’s Project 2025.

Another indication of U.S. economic declension is the developing BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), with more countries requesting to join that bloc.

If the underlying economy of the U.S. continues its decline, it is guaranteed that U.S oligarchs will use every legal mechanism available to scam American working people of everything they can.

Information distributed to working people must explain the underlying nature of its economic relationships; chronic economic adversity and anxiety have become so normalized that practical consideration of other economic models appear to be chimerical.

The strategy of the obscenely wealthy is simple: control the media, the courts, and political system with scads of resources. Just read the Republican Party’s Project 2025. It’s a blueprint to implement autocratic political constructs based on a neoliberal economic model devoid of our historical democratic values.

That model maintains the power and privilege of U.S. oligarchs while scapegoating minorities, undocumented immigrants, labor unions, government programs and LGBT people. It is a cynical distraction to hoodwink working people while padding their bank accounts and financial portfolios.

James Madison, a founder warned us in Federalist 10 about powerful factions that could dominate civil society. U.S. oligarchs fit that description.

The message that our economic model is the only realistic choice is constantly pounded into our heads or subtly whispered by the corporate media and both major political parties.

Progressives must work to elect candidates whose agenda is to advocate for all working people. It must work in tandem with peaceful mass movements.

This can result in serious political reform to begin to break the cadaverous economic grip of U.S. oligarchs on our political system.

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