Much has been made of what would happen in the first days when the Democrats took control of the Congress, and Democratic politicians speak boldly about an agenda that would privilege "the middle class."
But since the Democratic Party used to speak for the working class, one now wonders who speaks for them. Maybe this is a trick, since psychologists know that many poor people believe that they belong to the "middle class" when they really don't. But Democrats also figured out that poor people don't vote, but the middle and upper classes do. So why pitch to poor people?
A substantial part of the Democratic base is falling more rapidly into the lower income category, losing out in the new knowledge-based economy where jobs are flowing overseas and where they are now the subject of intense job competition right here at home. So newly empowered Democrats need to fashion policies that are targeted to the working class, a substantial portion of their voting base, some who are indeed middle class and a substantial portion who are poor.
Blacks constitute a disproportionate share of the Democratic base that needs social and economic policies that work to alleviate material discomfort. Now that Blacks have voted and made the difference — disproportionately — they should expect a return. So, I think after the agenda laid out by Nancy Pelosi – one the Democrats believe they can accomplish rather quickly — is finished, they might move on to an agenda that rewards their base.
When you ask this question of Black political accountability, the answer that often comes back is that, well, health care, the minimum wage, ethics reform, beefing up college tuition assistance and the other issues include Blacks as well. But public policies rarely have an impact on the Black community, and so targeted policies are needed.
Democrats need to resurrect the focus on urban policy, something that has been out of fashion for decades, because it is associated with both the riots and with the build-up of the Black population.
Raising the minimum wage from the current level of $5.15 to $7.25 is a good start, but it is meeting opposition from the Federation of Small Businesses, a Republican lobbying group, and from George Bush, who will support it, as long as it is tied to decreasing the impact on his base. Nevertheless, a new Associated Press poll finds it wildly popular, with more than 80 percent of Americans supporting it, so it will probably enable Pelosi to take the measure directly to floor for a vote rather than through the committee system.
With that done, many will feel they have taken care of the working class and move on. But the data show, for example, that in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, the median income is about $75,000. In both cities, one in every five residents is living below the poverty line. So, obviously, those cities need far more than just a larger minimum wage. They need at least a living wage, and to help provide that, states need job training for a knowledge-based economy; increased social supports so that single mothers with children can go to work and stay at work; and stronger educational programs that enable a woman to earn a degree, for her children to be educated at a public school and for college students to ward off crushing tuition debt.
Cities also need to be able to build affordable housing with a revenue stream that doesn't depend on tax-abatement incentives to businesses. The research is mixed on whether this measure has led to viable urban economic development.
In the second hundred days, more attention needs to be paid to those measures that will make the voting base of the Democratic Party feel like it has something to vote for in the 2008 elections. But without some attention to its needs right now, who knows what could happen?
Ron Walters is director of the African American Leadership Institute and professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park.