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‘Unfinished Business’: The Struggles of a Shrinking Middle Class

Larrilou Carumba walks the picket line in front of the San Francisco Marriott Marquis. The new contract includes a wage increase.Larrilou Carumba walks the picket line in front of the San Francisco Marriott Marquis. The new contract includes a wage increase.
Larrilou Carumba walks the picket line in front of the San Francisco Marriott Marquis. The new contract includes a wage increase.Courtesy of Unite Here

In March 1961, John Davenport, a venerable writer who for years sat on Fortune’s erstwhile “board of editors,” wrote a nearly 6,000-word feature for the magazine titled, “In the Midst of Plenty.” Its premise was straightforward: Although poverty in the U.S. had been eased substantially in the previous generations, there were still 32 million Americans living “below the line,” as Davenport put it.

“To diminish poverty has always been the American business—the business of the individual, the corporation, private philanthropy, and, by changing means, the business of government,” he wrote. Such a mission was very much in the service of the nation’s ideals, and also of Fortune’s.

Read: The Shrinking Middle Class: By the Numbers

This is the publication, after all, that dispatched writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans to chronicle the hardscrabble life of sharecroppers in Alabama—the story that ultimately became the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, though it never appeared in the magazine’s pages. This is the brand that sent a writer in 1932 to investigate a nationwide epidemic of dilapidated housing; and that, in 1989, assigned John Huey—a charismatic Southern journalist who would later sit atop Fortune’s masthead and, thankfully, hire me some years later—to write a thoughtful and enterprising feature on how to win the war on poverty. The notion that “American poverty” persisted, in spite of what was then the longest peacetime economic expansion in history, “stands as the nation’s most conspicuous failing,” Huey wrote.

Funny how history repeats itself.

These stories were neither “left” nor “right”; for all the shock of the subject matter, Fortune’s frequently conservative writers and editors offered (mostly) nongovernment remedies and feared the specters of regulation and aggressive redistribution. The magazine’s primary roles, rather, were to probe, to scrutinize, and to stand witness.

That, indeed, is the spirit that motivates this issue’s powerful special report on the shrinking middle class. The effort brought together the talents of 19 writers, five editors, three copy editors, 12 photographers (in 12 different cities), three photo editors, four video producers, two illustrators, two designers, and one data visualization artist—51 people in all.

But in that phenomenally talented and tireless crowd, there is one who stands out—and that’s Fortune digital editor Andrew Nusca, who conceived of this important editorial conversation months ago and, with a keen eye and intellectual rigor, guided the army of journalists above from start to finish.

Read: The Shrinking Middle Class: Tales From New York City

The story, at its heart—as with all the other great features cited above—isn’t really about the dividing lines of class and wealth; it’s about a nation’s soul. As John Davenport wrote in 1961, “the continuing struggle against distress is still the great ‘unfinished business’ of America.”

I’m so grateful I can count on my brilliant Fortune colleagues to carry on the work.

A version of this article appears in the January 2019 issue of Fortune, as part of the story “Unfinished Business.”