During his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden repeatedly insisted that his primary goal as president would be to help America’s struggling middle class. “Ordinary, middle-class Americans built America,” he said during a Democratic primary debate in June 2019. Under President Donald Trump’s policies, he said, “too many people who are middle class and who are poor, fall to the bottom’.
When defining “middle class” and “poor,” a good place to start is median household income. In 2020, the year before Biden became president, the U.S. median was about $67,000, down from about $69,000 the year before. The poor probably make less than that, and people in the “middle” class, especially those who feel the economic bottom is falling out beneath them, probably don’t make much more.
Neither the president nor Biden’s attention has often been elsewhere. Under Biden, Democrats have consistently focused their energy on policies designed to benefit households with steady employment and six-figure annual incomes — not the super-rich, but the affluent upper middle class.
Shortly after taking office, for example, the Biden administration defended its decision to send $1,400 pandemic relief checks to families making up to $150,000 a year. The checks were part of the American Bailout, a $2 trillion package of handouts to Democratic interest groups that Democrats pushed through Congress on party-line votes shortly after taking control of the House, Senate and White House.
“We have to take care of the people who are hurting,” Biden told a group of House Democrats as the legislation took shape in February 2021. Around the same time, Jen Psaki, then the White House press secretary, defended the push by Biden that the checks go to six-figure earners. Biden, she said at a news conference, “believes that a married couple — let’s say they’re in Scranton, just for the sake of argument; one works as a nurse, the other as a teacher – making $120,000 a year, should get a check.”
A two-earner family with stable jobs and good employment prospects earning $120,000 a year may be middle class. But such a family in Scranton, Pennsylvania, would make nearly twice the 2020 U.S. median and more than five times the local median household income of $23,103. It is hard to believe that the household described by Psaki is really “hurtful”.
Other Biden policies benefited even higher-income families. The US bailout included a temporary expansion of subsidies offered through the Affordable Care Act, the health coverage law also known as Obamacare. That expansion spent $34 billion over two years to increase private insurance law subsidies. The law originally offered subsidies to families making up to 400 percent of the poverty line, or about $106,000 a year in 2021. Biden’s legislation changed the formula for determining the income limit for the subsidies. The new limits vary by locality, but in some cases would allow families making up to $350,000 a year to qualify for insurance subsidies worth more than $20,000 a year.
A household income of $350,000 would put each family in the top 3 percent of earners in the United States. So much for the struggling middle class and the poor.
Similarly, as Democrats debated Biden’s 2021 Build Back Better spending package, many blue-state Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY), insisted the deal include an adjustment to the state and local deduction taxes. This deduction mainly benefits high-income earners in blue states who pay high income and property taxes.
This year, Democrats pushed Biden to forgive huge chunks of student loan debt through executive action. These benefits would primarily be received by higher-income professionals with advanced degrees. Although no action had been taken at press time, The Washington Post reported in May that the president was considering capping forgiveness income at $300,000 a year.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the makeup of the Democratic Party has recently been skewed toward high-income, college-educated professionals. In 2020, Biden won 60 percent of college-educated voters, according to Pew Research Center data, and more educated counties went Democratic. These high-earning grads may be ordinary Democrats, but they are not “ordinary middle-class Americans.”
This article originally appeared in print under the title “Biden comforts the comfortable”.