In Class War, It’s the “Middle” Ground that’s Key

Want to know a major reason Washington won’t make the cuts we need? Because winning elections is largely about getting “middle-class” votes, and just about any program can be spun as a savior for that big – but rarely defined by politicians – chunk of Americans.

Case in point, an animosity-stoking assertion uttered last week by House education committee Ranking Member George Miller.  As reported by CNN, the subject was the possibility of a cut being made to the federal Pell Grant program:

Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, defended Pell Grant funding on Friday, calling it the “great equalizer” for millions of students.

“Pell is the reason they are able to go to college and get ahead,” Miller said. “It’s a shameful excuse and an attack on middle class families.”  

Now, what’s wrong with this assertion (other than its obnoxiousness and assumption that Pell doesn’t mainly enable colleges to raise their prices)? According to the U.S. Department of Education’s  description of Pell – and the long understood intent of the program – it isn’t for the middle class. It is for “low-income” Americans:

The Federal Pell Grant Program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education.

So much for Pell-trimming proposals assaulting the middle class. Buy maybe Rep. Miller was doing more than just inaccurate, uncivil political posturing with his comments. Maybe he was revealing a dirty little secret: While Pell is better focused on low-income students than many federal aid programs, over time politicians increasingly aim all education efforts at the big mass called the middle class. Maybe Miller was accidentally acknowledging that aid for the poor morphs into aid for the not-poor because, well, that’s where the votes are.

Look at Pell, which, again, is relatively well targeted. In the 1975-76 school year, 1.2 million students received grants (table 1). By 2009-10, 8.1 million did – almost seven times more! Meanwhile, overall enrollment in degree-granting institutions grew from about 11.2 million in 1975 to 20.4 million in 2009, less than doubling.  Almost certainly, there has been less precise targeting to truly low-income students. Indeed, about 6 percent of Pell recipients (table 3-A) in 2009-10 came from families making at least $50,000 a year, or about the median household income in 2009.

Such expansion has been seen in K-12 education, too, though one wonders if Pell is singled out for big bucks in the debt-ceiling deal because people get Pell personally, unlike elemetary and secondary aid which goes to states and districts. Regardless, federal K-12 funding has spread farther and wider over the decades as politicians have sought to keep money coming even as their districts have lost people, and as allocations have become less and less focused on individual students. 

When waging class war, a powerful weapon is to portray your political enemy as intentionally hurting the most vulnerable people: the poor, children, etc. But the winning strategy? Sending money to the middle class, and capturing their precious votes.