For the past five weeks, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has explored the economic challenges facing the middle class in America through our "Middle of Nowhere" series.
Middle-class families today are struggling primarily because of the recession that hit at the end of 2007. Even though it is officially over, unemployment remains high, job growth is sluggish, and millions of homeowners have less equity in their homes than they did five years ago.
Blacks and Hispanics have been hit particularly hard by the housing slump, and their unemployment rates are significantly higher than those for whites.
Even before the latest recession, though, the middle class in the United States was not doing as well in a relative sense as their parents' or grandparents' generations had done.
In the 30 years after World War II, middle-class incomes climbed at the same annual rate as other earners' pay did, but from 1979 to 2007, the middle three-fifths of earners saw an increase of about 40 percent in pay, or roughly 1.2 percent each year, while the top fifth of earners leaped ahead by 103 percent, or just under 2.6 percent annually.
The growing inequality in America, combined with the government's bailout programs for banks after the recession, launched two populist movements, the conservative tea party and liberal Occupy Wall Street, and have consumed Washington politics over the past two years.
Because of the gridlock between the Obama White House and the Republican-controlled House, though, no major proposals have been able to move forward, and the nation came to the brink of defaulting on its debt.
And yet there are many good ideas out there for addressing some of the major problems facing America, from taxes to government spending to higher education bills to health care costs. We present just a sampling of proposals, which come from both sides of the political aisle, in today's issue.
Someday, some of these innovations may actually come to fruition, but first, our leaders will need to have the will to move ahead.
Mark Roth: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1130.