Obama's Middle-Class Task Force Has No Middle Class

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William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

Vice President Joe Biden arrives for the meeting of the Middle Class Task Force at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on Feb. 27, 2009

Last Friday, Vice President Joe Biden and seven White House Cabinet members traveled to Philadelphia to kick off the inaugural gathering of President Barack Obama's Middle Class Task Force. The task force will convene monthly in cities across the country to confront the problems faced by average Americans. It's an admirable goal — in light of rising costs, stagnant wages and job cuts, a Pew Research study found that 78% of self-described middle-class Americans have trouble maintaining their current standard of living.

Still, the middle class may have a better shot at making ends meet than at influencing the Middle Class Task Force. That's because no member of the Middle Class Task Force is actually middle class. While defining America's most beloved demographic group has never been an exact science, most academics agree that the term refers to anyone earning between $30,000 and $100,000 a year. (Median household income in the U.S. hovers around $50,000.) Every member of the President's task force — from Biden ($227,000) to Council of Economic Advisors Chairwoman Christina Romer ($172,000) to Energy Secretary Steven Chu ($191,000) — makes well over $150,000, putting them in the top 5% of wage earners. (See pictures of crime in Middle America.)

Middle-class Americans are invited to submit questions and ideas through the task force's website, but while tickets for the Philadelphia meeting were distributed to labor and environmental groups, the task force did not accept questions from the audience. "If Biden and his team want to go into this [middle-class issue]," says Daniel Morris, communications director of the Drum Major Institute, a think tank that analyzes middle-class policy issues, "they're going to need to talk to real members of the middle class. There's no substitute for immediate intimate interaction."

Instead, the task force talked to Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell ($175,000), Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter ($167,000) and United Steelworkers of America president Leo Gerard (who reportedly earns over $170,000). "[The Vice President] is doing the right thing," says Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America, "but hearing directly from working people who are struggling and finding their way is an essential part of this."

In Philadelphia, the task-force members and panelists spent a long time congratulating one another on their good intentions before turning to the meeting's single topic: green jobs. The stimulus package bestows $500 million for green job-training programs, $6 billion in loan guarantees for green industries and $5 billion for a weatherization-assistance program that could save homeowners up to $350 per year on utilities. Van Jones, president of Green for All, made an impassioned plea to "give young people the chance to put down that handgun and pick up a caulking gun." Greg Nelson, official Middle Class Task Force liveblogger, commented on an argument among representatives from Portland, Ore., Los Angeles and Philly, who tried to out-green each other for the title of most environmentally friendly city. (See the top 10 green ideas of 2008.)

The task force didn't specify the number of jobs it hoped to create in the green sector or how much of an impact the programs are expected to have on the middle class as a whole. Annie Tomasini, Biden's deputy press secretary, says the Philadelphia meeting was just a "listening session" and that the task force will not actually make any decisions regarding green job creation. They'll have to go back to Washington to do that.

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