Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele: The ongoing destruction of America's middle class has accelerated since we wrote "America: What Went Wrong?" in 1991. Good-paying jobs and benefits - the financial foundations for working families and individuals - are disappearing faster than ever.
Much of the recent media coverage has focused on the Great Recession as the source of working America's economic woes, but Washington policies that predate the recession have been gutting the American middle class for decades.
Just as we were weighing the idea of revisiting the subject, we began receiving e-mails from readers who had read "America: What Went Wrong?" when it first appeared or who had recently discovered it.
Hearing from these readers confirmed to us that it was time to return to this story, to bring it up to date, and, more important, to introduce it to a younger audience for the first time.
Q: Can you describe your focus for this update?
Barlett and Steele: As always, our focus is on people. What's happening to the middle class and those striving to attain it, how incomes have stagnated or shrunken, how retirement security is an ever more fleeting goal, and how people are coping in diminished circumstances.
We're also focusing on the other end of the scale - the very rich, whose incomes have soared during this period.
Q: What strategy are you planning to use to investigate the state of the U.S. economy?
Barlett and Steele: We'll report this story in two ways: through new interviews with men and women across the country who will tell their stories in their own words, and through government and corporate records that go back decades. We'll also analyze how corporate tax breaks have driven down wages and exported jobs.
Q: Can you say what issues you plan to examine?
Barlett and Steele: We're all familiar with some of the big issues in the economy - jobs, employee benefits, and how we will survive in retirement. Much of the national focus now is on the weekly unemployment rate, but there is another important number that's seldom mentioned: the number of Americans who are working for the same money or even less than they were years ago.
Q: The 1991 project stirred controversy with some accusing you of exaggerating the problems in the nation's economy. How does what you reported in 1991 stack up with the developments of the last 20 years? The last few years?
Barlett and Steele: We were accused of being alarmist in 1991, but events have shown that we actually underestimated the problems.
In 1991 we said that due to public and private policies the middle class was shrinking, that the nation was moving toward a two-class society, that the income of most Americans was not going to keep pace with the cost of living, that more Americans would lose their health coverage as employers cut benefits, and that guaranteed pensions were becoming a thing of the past.
The fact that America has an ever-growing income gap is now widely accepted, and within just a few years of our 1991 series, even Alan Greenspan, then-chairman of the Federal Reserve, was speaking about the growing disparity between rich and poor Americans and how that could pose a "major threat to our society."
We predicted that globalization would further undercut the earnings and benefits of American workers, but the trend undermined many industries much faster than we had anticipated and is now making sharp inroads into the so-called "knowledge industry" jobs that were long touted as immune to outsourcing.
Q: The project includes plans for a book and documentary that will be available in 2012. Is the timing connected to the 2012 presidential race? What do you hope to accomplish?
Barlett and Steele: The timing of the book is very much connected to the presidential race, just as the publication of "America: What Went Wrong?" was in 1992. It's even more critical this time so that voters understand what's really at stake and how Washington is about to terminate the economic futures of tens of millions of working people under the guise of balancing the budget.
Q: What is the Investigative Reporting Workshop, and what is your relationship with that group? What financial support did the workshop obtain to fund this project?
Barlett and Steele: The Workshop is a leading force in the rapidly growing field of nonprofit investigative journalism. Founded in 2008 by Charles Lewis, perhaps the most preeminent figure in this evolving field, the Workshop partners on projects with established investigative reporters such as ourselves or undertakes them directly with its own staff.
As a result of Lewis' support, the project is being financed from multiple sources. We have a book contract with Public Affairs and a contract with the Workshop to report and write articles for the website and provide overall guidance to its reporters who are also posting material on the site. So far, the Workshop has received grants from four foundations to help finance the work.
Read the 1991 series and link to features
wrong. Join a chat at
1 p.m. Monday.