The Situation of the American Middle Class
Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 11, 2008
Last month, NPR’s On Point (with host Tom Ashbrook) had a one-hour show titled “Falling Behind Our Parents.” Here’s the show’s description.
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Nan Mooney is thirtysomething, well-educated, the child of baby boomers who herself grew up with all the accoutrements of what was very recently thought to be a regular middle-class American life. Nothing fancy, but the full basics: a nice little home with steady income, housing, health insurance, and a summer vacation somewhere.
Now, Nan Mooney and millions of others of her generation have none of those.
And she’s not sure she ever will.
Her new book is “(Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents.” And she’s mad.
This hour, On Point:
- Nan Mooney, and a generation, not keeping up.
- Peter Gosselin, national economics correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and author of the forthcoming book “High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families”
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For a worthwhile interview transcript from Salon, click here. Below we’ve pasted an excerpt from Nan Mooney’s book.
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Since the 1950s, what we’ve considered the American experience — be it sock-hopping, suburban living, or SUV buying — has been largely dictated by the professional middle class. In her 1989 social critique, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, Barbara Ehrenreich defined this mainstream population in terms of education, occupation, lifestyle and tastes, but also in terms of income. “Middle class couples,” she wrote, “earn enough for home ownership in a neighborhood inhabited by other members of their class; college educations for the children; and such enriching experiences as vacation trips, psychotherapy, fitness training, summer camp and the consumption of ‘culture’ in various forms.”
This thriving middle class didn’t develop by accident. It emerged with the introduction of government and social policies designed to lift the country out of the Great Depression and sustain economic health in the postwar era. By the 1950s, a combination of social programs including Social Security, unemployment insurance, the GI Bill, and federal housing loans helped middle class salaries stretch. Employers supplied health insurance and pensions. A surge in suburban building made housing widely accessible. You no longer had to be a doctor or a businessman to afford a two-story Colonial with a dishwasher and a color TV. For a white male supporting a family — the typical middle class profile at the time — it was possible to work in an array of professions whereby you didn’t necessarily get rich, but you could count on being fairly comfortable. A house, a job, a car or two in the garage, a fun summer vacation, these were absolute indicators of middle class success.
Economic realities have undergone seismic shifts since our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Education and housing cost more. Incomes have leveled off for all but a small minority. Employers and the government supply few social safety nets, cutting health insurance and pensions and replacing them with new “benefits” like 401(k)s and health savings plans that benefit only those with income to set aside. But many of those middle class expectations set in place back in the ’50s still hold.
Alongside our schooling in philosophy and economics, today’s college-educated professionals have been conditioned to see ourselves as among the financially stable, mainstream haves. Many of us attended what are considered strong academic institutions. Others come from families with comfortable financial backgrounds. Our childhood friends, our college roommates, the couple we met at that holiday party are those same lawyers and financiers who’ve hit the financial jackpot, driving multiple Mercedeses and buying $2 million starter homes. We know we aren’t like them. We’ve aspired to different career and financial goals, those more rooted in education, the arts or public service. But, given our often-similar backgrounds and educations, it’s clear we aren’t entirely unlike them either. This rising and dramatic economic inequality among college-educated professionals, leaving so many of us to struggle while a select few enter the strata of the “super rich,” was not supposed to be part of the package.
When we read about the middle class squeeze, we tend to think blue collar — the machinist who used to make $25 an hour now making $15, the vocationally trained worker whose job just got cut. But what about the social worker who makes $30,000 a year, the environmental scientist who makes $40,000, the college professor who makes $50,000? The rules of the game have changed. The educated professional middle class experience no longer guarantees two cars in every driveway, or even the driveway itself. Instead we face relatively low-paying jobs in fields requiring a high-cost education, increasing mortgages, student-loan and credit card debt, less employer or government help with health care, retirement, education and child care, and an overall higher cost of living. As the gap between the rich and the middle class widens, a huge segment of that once-comfortable center section is finding that reality means plummeting financial and emotional security and lack of control over our lives.
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For related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of the Mortgage Crisis,” “The Financial Squeeze: Bad Choices or Bad Situations?,” “The Situation of College Debt” – Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.