If you're looking for an important voting bloc, candidates, skip the middle class and spend some time in retail.
Obama, Romney, please. No more genuflections to the middle class.
No more pieties to the millions of Americans who fear for their 401(k)s; no more sighs of concern for those who tremble at the thought of driving a car more than five years old, and no more kissing babies of stressed middle-class families who just saved a bundle by refinancing their overvalued homes.
They're doing fine. Oh, I suppose, now and then, they make sacrifices. Buying organic ground beef at Trader Joe's in lieu of steak, so they can make Hamburger Helper on their Jenn-Air ranges. By switching to a limited cellphone plan. (Does Apple allow that?) Or, God forbid, sending their son or daughter to a public state university.
Besides, who is the middle class? Economists, demographers and astrologers on your staffs have carefully measured average incomes, median incomes and NFL football player salaries, then have melded those calculations into a political expedient family of four. Ignore those two kids; it's the parents' votes that are important.
But you're ignoring an important constituency at your peril ... the poor.
No, no! Not that poor! Those folks who are jobless and draw federal and state benefits such as food stamps, cash assistance, child tax credits and Medicaid -- those people are firmly in the Obama camp. You've just got to get them to polls.
Then there are the working poor, like me and many of my fellow just-better-than-minimum-wage cashiers at the East St. Paul Target where I work. All races, all ages -- we get just enough hours per week to earn just enough to be eligible for no public subsidies. Some do, though -- like the single mothers. Some of the young ones still live with their parents.
But the new rising class of potential voters are the entrepreneurial poor, many of whom might have formerly identified themselves as middle class. But joblessness, debt and lack of opportunity knocked them a few rungs off the economic ladder. How do they survive?
I see them all the time from my perch at the customer-service desk at Target. There are the return stringers -- people on the front end of loose-knit shoplifting gangs -- hired to return purloined merchandise for store credit using a driver's license. Recently, a pimple-faced, tattooed and gap-toothed young man returned more than $60 of Oil of Olay age-defying cosmetics.
I did not ask what would have been obvious questions. Do you have a receipt? Did you pay with a debit or credit card? Have these improved your skin?
I gave him a gift card.
Then there are the ATMers -- people charged with turning gift cards into currency. Like the kindly and elderly grandma who rode a courtesy scooter into my cashier lane. She purchased numerous $4.99 infant socks with a gift card, one at a time, generating multiple receipts.
Not long after, she returned each pair of $4.99 socks, one at a time, aware of the store's policy to bestow cash as an option for any return of $5 or less, no matter how an item was purchased. She had pennies ready so we could give her crisp $5 bills for each return. The store was her ATM.
But the newest entrepreneurial poor at our East St. Paul Target are the couponers, who, individually or in groups, purchase multiples of same items at little or no cost using high-dollar or "free" coupons found online. Then they return the items for full cash value.
The most lucrative coupons occur with high-price toiletries, such as Crest Whitestrips, or razor blades that sometimes retail for $25 and more. With a coupon for $5 or $10 off, some can garner hundreds in profits with a modest capital investment.
They are not shopping for bargains; they are shopping for cash.
The entrepreneurial poor are part of an underground cash economy that arose as a result of the recession. Illegal? Illicit? Unethical? Perhaps. But as Tony Curtis opined in that wonderful 1959 World War II comedy "Operation Petticoat," as the bombs were dropping around them, "In chaos, there is opportunity."
The entrepreneurial poor are smart, daring and resourceful, and could be a potent political force in the general election. They represent a new political class, libertarian in outlook, perhaps, but certainly capitalists. They are progressive in their willingness to collaborate.
Millions have fallen from the middle class. Where did they go? They're at my Target. If only the candidates paid them attention.
Doug Champeau is a writer from St. Paul.
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