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OPINION: A long 'winter of reckoning' for the middle class

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.

This is a winter of reckoning. When Gov. David A. Paterson said that in his State of the State address last week, he was talking about elected officials. But given the difficult times throughout the state, the phrase can be applied much more broadly.

Members of the middle class, for instance, have been living in their own perennial winter, suffering a decline in standard of living and financial security that predates the current downturn.

Between 2000 and 2006, more than 4 million American families fell out of the middle class. That is, they lost many of the staples of middle class financial security, among them access to health care and the ability to afford basic expenses, pay for their children's education, or save for a rainy day or retirement.

With job losses and cutbacks becoming more common, millions more families have had to clip coupons, cut costs and scrape by.

They also have had to take more drastic measures, too. In the past two years, more than one out of three middle-class families have been forced to use credit cards to cover basic expenses like food and shelter. Fifty-two percent have turned to credit cards to cover medical bills, a last resort when assets and insurance are not available.

Among middle class families using credit cards to get by, one in two have racked up more than $5,000 in credit card debt; more than one in four have accrued greater than $10,000. The middle class is digging itself into a hole from which it will be hard to escape.

As Paterson was talking about the state of the state, news reports were talking about how the middle class is doing better in other parts of the world, and so is the economic recovery.

Brazil's economy hasn't taken many significant hits in the current downturn, the headlines said. In fact, it is projected to grow at least 5 percent this year.

The consensus among the reports was that Brazil has avoided crisis and encouraged growth by making every effort to support a robust middle class and to increase its size. Government efforts to address poverty and promote social mobility have helped 32 million Brazilians move into the middle class since 2003, and about 20 million escape poverty, according to figures from the Center for Social Policies at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.

China also has been heavily cited as an example of what a burgeoning bourgeoisie can do to allay economic crisis. The Chinese now sell more cars in their country than American companies do in the United States, and the Chinese economy is doing much better than others.

That's because of rising consumption, driven by a rising Chinese middle class. Millions of Chinese have moved to the middle in the past five years as a direct result of government policies that support job creation and wage increases.

We need similar support for the middle class here. Some of the initiatives Paterson put forth in his speech are a step in the right direction, if they can be enacted. His focus on pursuing economic development through strengthening the manufacturing sector is not a bad start. Provided that the resulting jobs require highly skilled labor and pay accordingly, this effort could provide middle class, family-sustaining incomes over time.

The chances of this happening, however, are greatly affected by how much training unemployed workers receive to transition to new roles, and by how affordable this training is. In other words, by how well our state colleges, particularly our community colleges, are funded.

The future of the middle class is also tied to having affordable health insurance available for every member of the family, an issue that continues to be contentious at the national level.

Paterson told lawmakers they need to have "the courage to build a New York where everyone has access to health care, an excellent education, and a good job." He's right. Elected officials must make the effort to rebuild New York's middle class. The middle class has given up all it can, and it still isn't enough.

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