The Decline of the Middle Class in America

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  • Duke Ellington’s Pulitzer: No in 1965, Yes in ’99
  • Swimming Skills
  • Trump’s ‘Unsafe’ America

Credit…Carolyn Drake/Magnum Photos

To the Editor:

Re “Why a Middle-Class Lifestyle Remains Out of Reach for So Many,” by Ezra Klein (column, July 20):

Mr. Klein has labeled the issue an “affordability crisis,” which seems a euphemistic labeling of the fundamental flaw in the whole American political/economic system. Yes, it is ridiculously expensive to attend college, buy health insurance, pay for health care and buy or rent a home. Because of this there is little economic security, with many only a paycheck away from bankruptcy or homelessness.

The tinkerings that he mentions are never going to correct this. A society can provide affordable health care, housing and college education as other developed countries do, but it means a totally different role for government and set of beliefs, values and economic rules.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his Second Bill of Rights 78 years ago, listed among these the right to “a decent home,” “a good education” and “adequate medical care.”

Yes, the government should guarantee these things, and yes, this means sweeping changes, including amendments to the Constitution and electoral reform to achieve the redistribution of income, wealth and power necessary.

Don Martin
Chagrin Falls, Ohio

To the Editor:

I’m an immigrant from Ireland who arrived in the early 1960s. My father, a blue-collar worker, was able to support a family of five with one income. We led a middle-class life with a home in suburban New Jersey. That would be nearly impossible today.

I’ve been fortunate to live the American dream of studying and working hard to improve our quality of life. I worry that my American-born children won’t be able to achieve the same dream.

Christopher G. Jacob
Saranac Lake, N.Y.

To the Editor:

It’s more than mere coincidence that the decline of the middle class in this country has coincided with the weakening of labor unions. At their peak in 1954, with 35 percent of the work force counted as members, unions provided a comfortable lifestyle unknown to previous generations. As long as unions are attacked as the villain, economic equality will remain a dream.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles

To the Editor:

Q. Why is a middle-class lifestyle out of reach for so many?

A. Not enough money.

Ever since President Ronald Reagan got the greed-is-good ball rolling, the ownership classes have been sucking up every dollar they could, leaving crumbs for the worker class. This has led to a huge expansion in national wealth, but with a maldistribution of that wealth. Many more would be middle class if that wealth were distributed more equitably.

Alan Meisel

To the Editor:

While I agree with the general point of Ezra Klein’s column, he starts it with a false comparison. To say that the median home price was 2.2 times the average annual income in 1950 and in 2020 was six times the income fails to take into account the changing size of the median home.

In 1950 the average home was 983 square feet, while in 2021 that figure had grown to 2,561 square feet, or 2.6 times larger. Obviously that makes a straight comparison of affordability based on price alone misleading.

Kevin Anderson
Raleigh, N.C.

Duke Ellington’s Pulitzer: No in 1965, Yes in ’99

Credit…Delcan and Co.

To the Editor:

Re “Duke Ellington Deserves the 1965 Pulitzer Prize,” by John McWhorter (Opinion newsletter, nytimes.com, July 20):

There have been numerous instances when no Pulitzer Prize was conferred. In 1965, the three-person nominating jury in music unanimously agreed that none of the eligible compositions that year were worthy of the award.

Instead, they proposed that a special citation be awarded to Duke Ellington for his overall contributions to American music. When the Pulitzer Board declined, there was a public controversy over what some saw as a cultural injustice rooted in racial prejudice. Up to that point, the composers who had been awarded Pulitzers did not include people of color.

In 1996, George Walker became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, for his work “Lilacs.” In 1999, the Pulitzer Board finally awarded a special Pulitzer citation to Ellington on the occasion of his centennial year. The award expressly honored Ellington’s “indelible contribution to art and culture” and implicitly redressed a grave wrong.

We believe that special citations are as consequential as our other awards. Ellington was indeed special, in the pantheon with such music citation awardees as Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, George Gershwin and others. As Terry Teachout, one of Ellington’s biographers, correctly observed, “In 1999 he got his Pulitzer.”

Marjorie Miller
New York
The writer is administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes.

Swimming Skills

Andre Brown and his brother Timarri waiting for the afternoon session at a pool in Brooklyn.Credit…Sean Sirota for The New York Times

To the Editor:

​“New York City Should Teach Children to Swim,” by Mara Gay (Opinion, July 26), correctly points out that our investment in teaching our city’s children how to swim is not proportional with the need in our city.

In an era of endless screen time, swimming is a fun way for children to get physical while building confidence and cognitive skills, and can even be lifesaving.

At Horizons NYC, swimming instruction for youth from communities that experience barriers to swimming is a key component of every program. Our students pass all criteria for Red Cross safety skills in the water. Parents recognize the importance of acquiring these skills.

With rising summer temperatures, particularly in urban settings like New York City, there needs to be an urgency to address these disparities, because cooler waters are enticing even to those with limited or no swimming skills. Increased investment, both in nonprofit and public programs, not only will build up students’ confidence and their potential for future well-paying jobs, but might save their lives as well.

Carmen Fariña
New York
The writer, a former New York City schools chancellor, is a board member of Horizons NYC, a nonprofit that fosters children’s educational and physical development.

Trump’s ‘Unsafe’ America

In his speech on Tuesday, Donald J. Trump repeatedly veered off script to complain about “hoax” investigations and lie about his 2020 election loss.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “A Trump-Pence Split, and an Uneasy Party” (news article, July 27):

Donald Trump is right. Our country is going to hell. It is a very unsafe place.

It is unsafe because military assault rifles are in the hands of private citizens and available to anyone. It is unsafe because women no longer have the ability to make their own health care decisions, in some cases, to stay alive.

It is unsafe because the Earth continues to experience accelerating climate change, but most efforts to do something about it are blocked. It is unsafe because we have a white nationalist movement that believes that violence is a legitimate means of political discourse and that rejects the possibility of loss at the ballot box.

So yes, it is a very unsafe place. All the direct consequence of Mr. Trump’s presidency and of the Republican Party that he purports to lead.

Four more years of this, and one cannot even imagine the hell this country will be. Hardly the political rallying cry he thinks it is.

Jeffrey Olkin
Princeton, N.J.

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