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COVID-19 Programs for the Middle Class; The Quandary for Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Hamilton
December 5, 2021

Politics is the fuel of public administration, or perhaps more aptly stated in today’s volatile environment, jet fuel. Simply grasp the term “middle class” and note the focus of numerous political initiatives related to the COVID-19 recovery programs flooding all media outlets. At the state level, upnorthlive.com announced on September 21 that Michigan Governor Whitmer’s new $1.4 billion economic agenda, “Focuses on growing Michigan’s middle class, recovering from COVID-19 and supporting small businesses.” Program goals include enhanced childcare access, accelerated small business development, high-speed internet and housing. In California, Governor Newsom recently announced a $100 Billion Comeback Plan, created to address their recovery from COVID-19 and other persistent challenges. The plan, billed by the Governor’s Office as the, “Biggest economic recovery package in California’s history,” includes provisions like, “Expanding direct payments to middle class families totaling $12 billion in stimulus payments.” Numerous other states are announcing similar government programs involving massive new spending with attention focused on the middle class.

At the federal level of government, President Biden recently announced his “fair shot” agenda as part of his proposed $3.5 trillion plan to implement his Build Back Better initiative. As reported by nbcnews.com, the President stated that his goal would raise taxes on the wealthy to strengthen the middle class and boost the economy. So with vast sums of money flowing to programs intended to build the middle class, traditional questions come to mind. Why are we doing this, what do we want to accomplish and who will do it?

Starting with why, nearly all Americans consider themselves to be part of the middle class without really understanding the term. But this creates a natural progression for the political mind to focus attention on a large group of vaguely defined voters; something for everybody! A recent article found on rand.org appropriately presented the dilemma; “Most Americans Consider Themselves Middle-Class. But Are They?” Citing a Pew survey from 2015, it stated that 10% of Americans consider themselves lower-class while just 1 percent thought they were upper class. In short, 89% of Americans consider themselves in the middle without understanding what it means. Policymakers and academics have long struggled to identify this highly accepted yet poorly understood term for years. Their attempts to define it have involved varied mechanisms and formulas based on income, education, lifestyle and culture with additional variables including age, race, marital status, debt levels and gender. But there is yet a broadly accepted, concrete definition.

Next, what are these programs supposed to accomplish? In the same article found on rand.org, authors Jeffrey B. Wenger and Melanie A. Zaber argue that regardless of how you define it, “The U.S. middle class reveals decline: Fewer millennials are middle-class than Gen Xers or baby boomers were at the same age. Middle-class workers are earning a national income share that is 8.5 percentage points lower, which translates to a 16.0% reduction. And the middle class is shrinking.” This trend that started long before the COVID-19 pandemic has been identified by numerous other researchers. But however defined, the impact of these expansive public initiatives remains to be seen.

But if politics is the jet fuel of government, what does it drive? The answer, as always, is public administration! Yet the problems created by these new programs are numerous. For politicians, the term middle class is so broadly misunderstood that it leaves them exempt from accountability and scrutiny for trillions of dollars. Why would they be criticized for funding programs designed to assist 89% of the population? But how will we know if they are throwing huge sums of money down a proverbial hole? For public administration, the term “middle class” is so obscure that it will be next to impossible to implement accountability. Based on the plethora of criteria, how will we direct the payment and programs to ensure that the targeted middle class will actually receive the benefits? More importantly, how will we monitor the results and effectiveness of these new programs and massive expenditures? How can we be accountable for helping 89% of the population that no one can consistently define?

Thus, the primary question for public administration becomes who will design and manage these massive, new programs? Largely assumed yet unstated in these announcements is any reference to the present and future capacity of public administration to make them work. Within our balkanized system of government in America, are 90,107 entities, according to the outdated Census of Governments of 2012. How well they are staffed today, based on significant cut backs, retirements, stay-at-home practices and COVID-19 related ailments—and even deaths—has not been determined. Finally, the unspecified details inherent within these new public programs seems to have simply assumed that the mechanisms and processes needed to ensure that trillions of dollars are consistently administered throughout our labyrinth of federal departments, 50 States and 90,056 local governments is somehow ready and waiting. Between the glowing political announcements and promised new expenditures lays a host of question that have yet to be answered.

Author: Dr. David Hamilton is a strategic leader experienced in managing county and city governments. He holds a Doctorate in Public Administration degree from Hamline University focused on the administrative challenges created by rapid-growth in Edge Counties and metropolitan areas. He heads his own consulting firm guiding governments and organizations in community visioning, strategic planning and capacity building and serves on the Executive Council of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA, based in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. Contact: [email protected]

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