"The most pressing worry is the diminished economic security of middle-class families. The long-term unemployed have completely drained their savings," says Kristen Lewis, co-director of Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council that explores the distribution of opportunity and well-being in the United States. "Those who are working have jobs without healthcare or sick leave. They have no retirement savings plan. There's no end in sight to that."
Lewis adds that the economic state of the middle class takes its toll on their health. A series of recent reports found that life expectancy for whites without a high school diploma—once the backbone of the middle class—has dropped faster than for other groups. The reports linked the decline in large part to the lack of access to healthcare.
Can the middle class come back? According to Lewis, current economic and political conditions won't provide the middle class with the same security it needed to rebound in the years following World War II. "In the post-war period, there were a lot of programs put in place to help people," such as education and homeownership assistance, says Lewis.
Madland says increasing the minimum wage and improving entitlement programs like Social Security are key to rebuilding the middle class. "[After the Great Depression], we made major policy changes to ensure we have a strong middle class. We let too much of it wither on the vine," he says. "We need something approaching that kind of effort."
But for Wisconsin's Smeeding, one thing has to happen before these policy changes can occur: "We have to get the economy growing again."