Madigan’s middle-class myth

Madigan’s middle-class myth

Less than half of Illinois households are defined as middle class.

House Speaker Mike Madigan is a master of misdirection.

“I think the government ought not to be in the business of working to reduce wages and the standard of living of anybody, especially the middle class and the poor,” Madigan said as part of an extensive interview at the Democratic National Convention.

The speaker and others in Illinois government have parroted some version of this truism in nearly every press conference for more than a year. Madigan uses it to justify opposition to any proposal threatening his power base. Members of his caucus fall in line.

But it flies in the face of his actions as a state lawmaker over the last four decades.

Illinois’ middle class has been crushed under Madigan’s leadership. And anyone who has bowed to the speaker’s wishes bears responsibility as well.

Just over 45 percent of Illinois households are defined as middle class, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That puts Illinois in a virtual tie with Ohio for the smallest share of middle-class households in the Midwest.

Middle-class families spend more on housing than anything else.

But under Madigan’s rules, Illinois property taxes have shot up to the highest in the nation. Those massive biannual bills dominate dinner-table discussions. At the same time, Illinoisans have seen the second-slowest growth in personal income in the nation since the Great Recession, according to research from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Many are forced to downsize. Some choose to leave the state altogether.

Even for families with stable housing, steady work is too difficult to find.

Good manufacturing jobs are the backbone of a strong middle class. But Illinois manufacturing workers take home the lowest pay in the Midwest, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Not only are Illinois manufacturing workers earning less for their work, but they’re also seeing slow growth in opportunities to work at all. Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Kentucky, Iowa and Missouri have all recovered a larger shares of their manufacturing jobs in the wake of the Great Recession than Illinois.

“The government ought to be in the business … of working to raise wages, raise the standard of living, make life better for people who are willing to work and go to a job,” Madigan said.

So why does the state’s most powerful politician maintain policies that kill Illinois jobs and put a boot on the neck of the middle class?

He has his reasons.

The workers’ compensation system does not change because Madigan must deliver a return on investment. Trial lawyers and law firms are two of the largest bankrollers of the Madigan machine.

Meanwhile, middle-class manufacturers are crushed under the weight of the highest workers’ compensation costs in the Midwest. And Illinois goes unmentioned in countless talks of expansion and relocation in boardrooms across the nation.

Property taxes remain high as Madigan gets paid to lower them as a Cook County property-tax attorney. The recipients of that tax money, government-worker unions, round out his political war chest.

Since 2002, Illinoisans have been more likely to get a job in state and local government than in manufacturing. Madigan protects his people.

But in doing so, he has directly lowered wages and the standard of living for millions of middle-class Illinoisans. How else can one describe the 2011 tax hikes? Passed in a single evening, the hike made a family of three earning $60,000 pay $1,080 more in taxes each year. Even after the partial tax sunset, Madigan has expressed his desire to hike the state’s income tax yet again.

Illinois’ food-stamp rolls offer a haunting example of what happens when lawmakers eschew a pro-growth path in favor of Madigan’s desires. Illinois is one of the worst states for putting people back to work after the Great Recession. And too many families can’t afford to feed themselves as a result.

More than 1.8 million Illinoisans are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. At more than 14 percent of the state’s population, that’s the second-highest share in the Midwest. More Illinoisans rely on food stamps than work in manufacturing, construction, education, health care and real estate combined.

Madigan and his preferred company continue to eat at a table set for political insiders, not the middle class.

The rest of us are left to fight for scraps.

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