EDITORIAL: It's time for policies that will grow middle class

Our Declaration of Independence states that "all men are created equal." Over the years, Americans have removed many barriers to that great aspiration -- with the Fourteenth Amendment, the vote for women, the civil rights acts, public education and more.

But since the late 1970s, the United States slowly has become the most unequal of the world's developed nations in its distribution of income and wealth. Our middle class is shrinking.

A new film, "Inequality for All," brings attention to this. The protagonist is the passionate Robert Reich, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former labor secretary during the Clinton administration.

The timing is right for a clear explanation of what has happened economically to the middle class in the last 30 years, and the impact it is having on our democracy.

The most stark fact in the film is that the typical male worker in 2010 earned $33,751; in 1978, he earned $48,302 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

This stagnation of middle-class incomes, Reich points out, has been masked by families becoming two-earner households, working longer hours, using credit cards and tapping their homes as ATMs. But with the bursting of the housing bubble, the mask has been lifted: "All of the coping mechanisms of flat wages for 30 years are now exhausted."

A new report from the UC Berkeley Labor Center points out more than half of fast-food workers working 40 or more hours per week are enrolled in public assistance programs to cover basic needs of food, rent and health care. That costs all of us.

Those at the top, however, have fared better. And if you think that's all to the good, think again.

Nick Hanauer, a Seattle pillow manufacturer and venture capitalist, points out in the film that the rich can buy only so many pillows and jeans. They invest some in companies creating jobs, but a lot goes to "funds of funds" -- financiers financing other financiers instead of real industries.

So what is the solution? Reich believes we should emulate the United States of the three decades after World War II.

That was a time when education was a national priority, including higher education. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman championed large-scale investments to assure greater access. And states contributed, too.

It was a time of investment in infrastructure, such as the interstate highway system. And, Reich points out, it was a time when more than one-third of workers belonged to labor unions that ensured that workers got a piece of productivity gains. As companies are designed to make profits, we need some countervailing force to look after the American worker.

Can this generation summon the political will to advance the aspiration of the Declaration of Independence?

We should not stand by as our "land of opportunity" fails to meet that promise.