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Sounding an alarm for America's endangered middle class

The Betrayal of the American Dream By Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele Public Affairs. 320 pp. $26.99 Reviewed by Leonard Downie Jr.

The Betrayal of the American Dream
By Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele
Public Affairs. 320 pp. $26.99

Just in time for this year's election, Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele are continuing the crusade to save the American middle class that they began two decades ago as star investigative reporters at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Their 1991 nine-day series in The Inquirer, "America: What Went Wrong," was ahead of its time in contending that, in the wake of the last big recession, the middle class was being squeezed by the rich, big corporations, and government policies.

In that series, they combined anecdotal reporting about the suffering of dislocated Americans with analysis of broad economic data to show, in their words, "how longtime corporate tax breaks have been used to drive down wages and export jobs … how the tax burden has been shifted from corporations to individuals … [and] that, for the first time, the middle class was shrinking." Their articles created a sensation, selling out copies of the newspaper and becoming a best-selling book in 1992.

Over the years, Barlett and Steele kept at it, in newspaper and magazine articles and more books, focusing on the growing gap between the rich and other Americans and the ability of multinational corporations to get their way, no matter which political party controlled the White House and Congress. Last year, they joined forces with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University in Washington to take stock 20 years after "America: What Went Wrong," with a website full of new stories by workshop reporters, several articles by Barlett and Steele published in The Inquirer and this new book.

Their unsurprising conclusion is that things have only gotten worse. "The forces that are dismantling the American middle class are relentless," they write in the book. "America must stop sacrificing its greatest asset. Because, without a middle class, there isn't really an America."

What has changed is that Barlett and Steele are now far from alone. American news media, bookshelves, and political rhetoric have been filled in recent years with revelations and arguments about income and tax inequities, Wall Street excesses and financial manipulation, deregulation and workforce downsizing, trade deficits and outsourcing jobs, corporate chicanery and political influence, and Americans who feel betrayed by it all. Much of the The Betrayal of the American Dream has been stated elsewhere in one form or another, including, notably, by Barlett and Steele themselves.

They have added in this book their prescription for "restoring the American dream": reforming the tax system, making free trade fairer for American workers, investing federal funds in the country's infrastructure, improving worker training, punishing corporate wrongdoing and persuading middle-class Americans to vote for politicians who would actually look out for their interests.

If much of this appears obvious and perhaps simplistic, so do many of the book's passionately stated conclusions. For all of its data-mining and poignant human examples, the book comes across more as a clarion call to do something about "One-Percenters," "Executive Excess," "Subsidizing the Rich," "Corporate Greed," and "Vanishing Jobs" than a clarifying in-depth examination of these complicated issues and what could realistically be done about them.

Dating back to the early 1970s at The Inquirer, Barlett and Steele have been prize-winning pioneers in data-based local and national investigative reporting, in which, in Steele's words, they "gather, marshal, and organize vast amounts of data already in the public domain," buttressed by anecdotal examples of what they find. They exposed injustices in Philadelphia's local courts, fraud in federal housing programs, manipulation of oil markets, and federal tax favoritism, evasion and lax enforcement. During their remarkable four-decade journalistic partnership at The Inquirer and, later, Time and Vanity Fair magazines, they won two Pulitzer Prizes for newspaper reporting and two National Magazine Awards.

As time went on and the subjects of their reporting became more sprawling, they shifted somewhat from mostly creating their own databases — as they did in the Philadelphia courts and land records — to also utilizing those compiled by others, including government agencies, private groups, and researchers. This book relies on those techniques, including analysis of an enormous quantity of public records of all kinds, listed in "a note on sources," although it does not break much new ground.

One hopes it is not their valedictory. At a time when the future of investigative reporting is at risk in the digital reconstruction of American news media, Barlett and Steele could once again pioneer new ways of doing it, as they did in part through this collaboration with the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

In any event, the publication of The Betrayal of the American Dream during the home stretch of the national political campaign injects a provocative populist imperative into an increasingly intense and perhaps decisive partisan debate over the fate of the American middle class.