Patricia Cohen’s piece “Middle Class, but Feeling Economically Insecure”1 published yesterday in the New York Times raises several discrepancies between the economics of the middle class and one’s identification with that group. Reading the comments on the article I was struck by how divided Americans' points of view are when it comes to the middle class and the causes of its distress. Clearly middle class wages have stagnated in the years immediately preceding and following 9/11. As the article points out, the median income in the US has not risen since 2000. Many of the commenters point to this and the feeling of insecurity and dispensability as a source of middle class angst. Others, fewer in number, point to a change in the baseline spending level. One commenter sums it up this way:
“I have a different take. I know that health care costs have skyrocketed and government policies have favored the rich, but I’ve met the enemy and it is us.”
“Around here, where there is an abundance of build-able land, houses have gotten bigger and nicer thru the decades. An obvious, dramatic increase in square footage, ceiling height, roof complexity. Anybody want to tell me that they don’t have twice or three times the kitchen that their parent had. And cars are bigger and nicer too, (I have a 1961 Ford f-250, and it’s smaller than a new Toyota Tacoma). Television was free back then and is still worthless today but people are addicted and will pay anything for cable. And cell phones cost about $40,000 per person per lifetime. That’s gotta come out of something and it shouldn’t be the kids education.”
Here’s the false dichotomy. The problem isn’t either solely due to economic policy or to consumer excess. It’s both.
I spent the majority of my childhood in an 1100 square foot home. Much of that time, we had a single family car. We attended public schools. We certainly didn’t have TV’s in every room. I remember once when it “played out” (that’s what we said in the South), we called the TV repairman to fix it. I remember laughing at the folks who had a second phone line for the kids. It was listed in the white pages as “Teen phone.” We almost never took vacations just for the sake of getting away. We always regarded ourselves as middle class. Today, we would regard that existence as deprived. Not then. And not me. I feel fortunate.
Perhaps the real problem is that rising expectations aren’t matched by rising incomes. We’ve allowed ourselves to be victimized by advertising and cultural expectations about owning “stuff”.
A third aspect, almost never discussed, is a shift in the aspirational qualities of the middle class. I feel very fortunate to have grown up beginning in the 60’s when the middle-brow culture of the middle class saw enduring qualities such as music and education as a pathway to both personal and economic betterment.
The problem with focusing on stagnant wages is that doing so closes out other productive ways of looking at the problem. Let’s start with ditching some of the amenities.