According to President Obama and the Democratic Party, the middle class is in trouble. Income is stagnating and opportunity for the average American is declining. Inequality is skyrocketing as the top one percent accumulates the nation’s wealth, dragging down the economy. Middle class families are at a much higher risk of financial ruin than 50 years ago. It is getting harder to retire comfortably.
Scott Winship says this Narrative of Doom is wrong. He is a social policy data-cruncher at the Brookings Institution who has evolved from a former ACORN operative to a centrist New Democrat to a future fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute.
Obama’s recent speeches on the economy exemplify the Narrative. The recent economic recession "laid bare the long erosion of middle-class security," he told a crowd at an Amazon distribution center recently. While "a growing middle class was the engine of our prosperity" after World War II, "over time, that engine began to stall," he said in Illinois. "Reversing this trend must be Washington’s highest priority," he said in Arizona.
Winship is skeptical. "I do feel like there’s a consensus on the Democratic side that Obama embraces that is just wrong in terms of facts about how the country is doing in some really important ways," he said in an interview. "And I think the insistence of he and others on the left of telling the middle class that they’re doing poorly is really—it’s disappointing, but it’s also irresponsible."
When Winship talks, whether about his life or his work, he speaks with both the confidence that numbers can lay reality bare, and also the knowledge that numbers can present subtle nuances that can be easily misinterpreted. "Kind of" is his fallback phrase in conversation, in the way others say "like."
"Scott has been working with data on mobility and inequality and related issues for a very long time," said Reihan Salam, a friend of Winship’s and a regular writer for National Review. "He’s someone who’s really working with the guts of this data."
And Winship’s study of the data has led him to question the fundamental premises of the liberal Narrative of Doom.
"This sort of talk of doom—quite apart from what Democrats want to do with that story, Scott argues that it’s just not true, and you have to start by defining the problem honestly," said Yuval Levin, editor of the conservative policy journal National Affairs.
In "Bogeyman Economics," Winship showed how the middle class is doing far better than the Narrative of Doom suggests. The Narrative relies on a "fabled golden age"—the years immediately following World War II—that was not nearly as bright and shiny as the Narrative’s advocates say. And then the Narrative’s proponents oversimplify the data from intervening years to show that the middle class’s prospects have only worsened. It's a distortion.
Take retirement security, for example. Then-candidate Obama argued in 2008 that it is getting harder to retire comfortably, but Winship’s analysis of the data shows that people are just as prepared for retirement now as they used to be. The pension participation rate doubled between 1950 and 1999, while changes to retirement-benefits give individuals more control over how they receive their money. Savings has increased since the 1970s. And people are retiring at an earlier age than they did 60 years ago.
"I was as left as anybody out there," Winship said, describing his younger years.
He grew up in Fairfield, Maine — "where diversity means Protestants and Catholics!" — but the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which took place during his freshman year, sparked his interest in inner city poverty and racial equality.
"That was fascinating to me, and I wanted to understand it better," he said. He majored in sociology and urban studies at Northwestern University in Chicago.
After college he took a job with ACORN, the liberal community-organizing group, which was campaigning in Missouri at the time to raise the minimum wage. His supervisor wanted to raise the minimum wage nearly 75 percent, from $4.25 to $7.25.
"I was sort of uncomfortable," Winship said about his time at ACORN.
"I would raise these arguments with him—well, you know, 70 percent of Missouri’s population lives in St. Louis or Kansas City, each of which has another state just across the river, which will have a much lower minimum wage."
If the campaign succeeded, Winship worried, jobs would flee Missouri for the bordering states.
Winship’s boss at ACORN dismissed his arguments as "economist bullshit," Winship said. He didn't stay long.
Winship’s discomfort with the left grew at Harvard, where he studied inequality and poverty in the sociology program starting in 2000.
"That was probably the first time that I started to feel a little bit alienated as someone who saw a lot more nuance in certain things," he said.
Winship learned to navigate the intricacies of data at Harvard under the tutelage of Christopher Jencks, whom Winship described as an empiricist who can be hard to peg ideologically.
He left Harvard before finishing his Ph.D. and took a job as managing editor of the Democratic Strategist in 2006, a website dedicating to furthering the Democratic Party’s policies and strategy. The man who hired him was Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and a founding editor of the Strategist.
At the Strategist, Winship took on the most progressive parts of his party, including Howard Dean and the Netroots. He argued that the more moderate New Democrats under Clinton took a wiser path than the more radical Deanites wanted to pursue. The Democrats ignored his advice.
He left the Strategist in 2007 for Third Way, a center-left think tank, and then a year later jumped to the Pew Charitable Trust, where he finished his doctoral dissertation and worked on Pew’s Economic Mobility Project. Winship credits his time at Pew with making him an expert on economic mobility and inequality. In 2011 he moved to his current home at Brookings.
"When Obama made healthcare reform a priority, I really didn’t like the approach that they ended up taking, which was really the Democratic, left of center, establishment approach," he said.
The Affordable Care Act, the progressive Holy Grail of healthcare reform, was what finally pushed Winship out of the Democratic Party.
"I was frustrated enough with what I took to be the two pillars of being a Democrat, which were: you had to believe the middle class was struggling, and you had to be in favor of this really large federal intrusion into the healthcare sector," he said.
The left’s Narrative of Doom has a couple of pernicious consequences, he said. The message of middle class insecurity might be politically astute in so far as it creates solidarity between the poor and the middle class. But it also can become self-fulfilling by depressing confidence in the economy and by generating bad domestic policy.
The narrative also obscures more important issues, he said.
"There are a lot of problems that the poor face, in particular inadequate upward mobility, that deserves our attention as a society, but that by focusing so much on the supposed problems of the middle class, Democrats are actually diverting resources and attention from helping the poor have more mobility.
"And so, at some point, I just stopped identifying. If that’s what you have to be to be a Democrat or to be left of center, I no longer felt like I was a Democrat or left of center."
As Winship's work increasingly alienated him from the political left, he met more and more conservatives, like Salam and Levin, who were interested in similar questions. He also became increasingly interested in conservative policy ideas. He’s a "huge fan" of Paul Ryan’s entitlement reform proposals, for example, and says a "more effective opportunity agenda" will have to come from conservatives.
His work brought him a cover story in National Review. "There was a little bit of discomfort for me there," he confessed about his story appearing in the conservative publication. But he gradually became more comfortable with his new alignment. He describes himself now as "moderately conservative" and a "1970s Neocon."
While he appreciates the attention from conservatives, he acknowledged other reasons they might like his work.
"The stuff that I try to interject into the conversation, at lot of times it feels like it is embraced by people because it’s convenient for them to embrace it."
However, parts of his work cut against the traditional Republican message that a "rising tide lifts all boats," as well as the Reaganite mantra that "government is the problem."
Winship's cover story for National Review, for example, was titled "Mobility Impaired." He argued not that America has a mobility problem overall, but that America has a problem with upward mobility from the bottom.
There may not be a middle class crisis, but Winship’s work indicates there is a "bottom-fifth" problem, said Salam, who encouraged Winship to write the article for National Review.
Winship wonders if conservatives are willing to "do a little bit more than traditionally they’ve been willing to," such as allowing more federal spending and a greater role for the federal government where appropriate. Certain cuts to welfare programs really will hurt the poor, he says, and conservatives need to realize that.
And just as he does not fit easily into a partisan box, Winship's research does not easily fit a current policy set. He praises Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) for trying to find a "genuinely conservative opportunity agenda that probably goes a little bit further than just pushing for economic growth and hoping that does the trick." But he is not sold on them, either.
"I have a hard time pointing to anyone right now who I think has got it figured out, but I think there are more people who are approaching the question from more interesting ways on the right than there are on the left at this point."
Later this year Winship will leave Brookings for the Manhattan Institute.
"It feels like its involved a lot of hustling," he said about his career path, "because when you don’t fit into a box as easily as some people, the paths are less obvious. You rely a lot on networking, but also on serendipity."
Multiple times during our conversation, Winship mentioned that the parties have become more polarized.
"There aren’t nearly as many renegades as there used to be on either side," he said.
And, of course, he had statistics to support his point.