The American Middle Class is part of American mythology, right up there with mom, baseball, and apple pie. And for a good reason. But the middle class is under attack. What can be done to save the middle class?
Are You Middle Class?
There are a lot of ways to define middle class. How much you earn, what you buy, where you live. It’s fluid, and that’s part of the reason, so many of us identify as such. Even if we don’t meet one definition, we may meet another. Are you middle class?
If you just want to know if you’re middle class or not based on how much money you have, you can use this calculator to find out.
The average middle-class household income is $72,036. That’s the entire country averaged out. State by state, it varies widely. Mississippi is at the bottom of the pile. The low end of middle class is $25,309; the upper end is $75,926.
Having recently spent time in Mississippi, I can attest to this. There are areas where people are still living in old sharecropper cabins and regions lined with beachfront condos. Maryland tops the list with a range between $48,322-144,966.
The Political Definition
In the unending and even more unavoidable election cycle, there is lots of breath and ink spent on discussing the middle class. If a fraction of that hot air ever actually translated into action that would benefit the much-courted middle class, they (we) would never have to worry about money, education, jobs, or debt again.
Alas, as with much of our political system, the middle class is not given much more than lip service by whatever nefarious scoundrels are running for whatever office. We’re the ones they court at their rallies and speeches, but the real deals happen at those fundraising dinners which none of us can afford a ticket to attend.
So politician largely defines the middle class as the suckers who elect them but not the ones who purchase them and the purchase of politicians are much more important than their election.
The Lifestyle Definition
So many of us define ourselves as middle class because we use lifestyle markers rather than dollars to define it. Even the poor in this country, by and large, have a place to live, food to eat, and clothes to wear. And a lot of people have cell phones, computers, televisions, etc.
Because of credit cards, many people buy things that make them feel a part of the middle class, a home in the suburbs, a new car, a summer vacation. A lot of us have those things. Whether we have the cash to pay for them is another matter.
In the past, the significant indicators of your middle-classness owned a home, a car, a retirement fund, health insurance, being able to put your kids through college, and taking a yearly family vacation.
Many of those things have been eroded over the last few decades. In the second quarter of 2015, rates of homeownership hit a 48 year low.
There are a lot of reasons for this; people were too gunshy to buy a home after the housing bubble debacle, people are marrying and having children later or not at all, young people prefer to live in urban areas where home ownership isn’t within reach, and because they are buried in student debt.
And some people don’t see a home as the ultimate sign of adulthood but as an albatross that limits freedom and mobility.
College and the Middle Class
Once upon a time, a sure ticket to the middle class was a college education. But with tuition out of reach for many and a lack of wage increases, a college degree is no longer enough to break into the middle class.
In fact, many students who come from middle-class families are starting college but failing to graduate. But not graduating doesn’t get you out of paying back student loans of course so now these people not only have the burden of student loan debt but no degree to show for it.
Why We Need One
Rich people need us for one thing. And not for the cliched, “who would scrub your toilets” reasons but because they need us to buy what they’re selling. Whether that is houses, cars, computers, vacations. They need us to buy those things. The middle-class consumers are the real job creators.
Because You Can’t Have it Both Ways
The 1% love to go on about how great American is and that anyone can achieve anything which is what makes us the greatest country in the world. But they have nothing but contempt for the vast majority of their fellow Americans.
They’re lazy and greedy, and if they just pulled themselves up by their bootstraps as they did, scroungers they could be rich too.
Well, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t consider America the greatest country in the world if you believe it to be populated by lazy scroungers who simply don’t want a good life as badly as you did.
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Why is the Middle-Class Disappearing?
For decades, the majority of Americans were middle class. That is no longer the case. No, there is an equal number of people in the economic categories above and below middle class.
Once upon a time, a man could graduate from high school, get a factory job where he belonged to a union, buy a house, and have enough money for a new car every few years, allow his wife to stay at home and raise kids, pay for those kids to go to college, and retire after 30 years with a pension.
Those days are gone, and they aren’t coming back. And they only existed while they did because of when they existed. It was the aftermath of World War II that allowed for what became known as the American dream and is still the benchmark in many ways even though that dream has been eroding for decades and is now virtually moribund.
America had those well-paying manufacturing jobs because we were one of the few economies and countries who still could manufacture anything after the devastation of the War on virtually all of Europe and on a huge swath of the rest of the world.
But as the world caught up, those jobs shifted overseas for all the reasons we’re familiar with; union busting, companies moving to where labor was cheaper, and some industries literally placing ads enticing migrants to come work in the US illegally knowing that they won’t complain about wages or conditions because they can’t.
You Can’t Paddle Your Way to Riches on a Trickle Down Shit Stream
In those glory years, when a company did well, they rewarded their employees with higher wages and increased benefits. And then there was a shift. Instead of a company sharing its largess with the workers, it shoveled it all to shareholders and CEO compensation. In 1980, Fortune 500 company CEO earned 42 times what the average worker made. Today they make 373 times as much.
And the shareholders are not job creators. They lock that money up in investments, and it isn’t trickling down or in any other direction. In the past, if the economy grew, incomes did too. But for the last 25 years, the economy has grown 83%, and after adjusting for inflation, the average family’s income hasn’t changed at all.
In that same time span, corporate profits have doubled as a share of the economy. American workers today produce almost twice as many goods and services per hour as they did twenty-five years ago but in 81% of US counties, the median income is lower now than it was in 2001.
All of this is nothing new regarding human history, much of which had two classes; the aristocracy and the peasantry. That little four-decade or so sliver after World War II was the aberration. When you add in all of the above factors and the $1.2 trillion in outstanding student debt and the ever-escalating cost of medical care, it’s only surprising that things aren’t going down the pan even faster than they are.
Student Loan Debt
There is over $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in this country; that’s more than the amount of outstanding credit card debt. The average student graduates with $26,600 in debt, sometimes that number is much, much higher.
Because of the debt and low paid jobs, many people are delaying things like marriage, home buying, and children. When and if they do have kids, many parents are still paying back their loans and can’t help their children pay for college.
Why Do We Need a Middle Class?
If the middle class is already dying, why don’t we just pull the plug?
We need a middle class because they are the real drivers of the economy in this country. When they buy all of those things that make them feel middle class, homes, cars, furniture, boats, vacations, that is what makes the economy tick.
Being middle class is pretty comfy. Maybe it’s not always luxurious, but it’s nice enough to keep us from protesting and rioting in the streets. When those shoved out and kept out of the middle-class snap in this country, the results are going to be ugly. We need the middle class to ensure political stability.
We see flashes of it now and then, but the protests are mostly racially based. When the 50 million poor people finally see that the 1% use things like illegal immigration, abortion, and the Kardashians to keep them separated and distracted, they will join, and their demands will be met. It only remains to be seen if their voices will be heard at the polls or in the streets.
Everyone wants to be rich but that isn’t realistic for a lot of people. What is, or once was, realistic for most people is to become part of the middle class. That’s why people went to college, that’s why they worked two jobs, that’s why they saved their money instead of blowing it for short-term pleasure; because they had an attainable goal to work towards.
If you take that goal away, what’s left? People who don’t have a lot of hope will just eventually give up. They won’t go to college; they won’t bother working 80 hours a week when doing so doesn’t leave them markedly better off than working 40 hours or even not working at all. This country has always been a nation of strivers, and that’s what made the 20th Century, “the American Century” when so much was achieved. If people don’t have anything to strive for, what do they have left?
How to Save It
The middle class isn’t just worth saving; it’s vital that it be saved. So how can it be done?
Well, we had a chance if the DNC hadn’t gotten up to their dirty tricks and those who would best be served by taking for themselves some of the socialism the rich take for themselves every day would have voted for Bernie Sanders. But that didn’t happen, and instead, we have two of the biggest shit heads ever to run for office less than three months away from being elected to lead the most powerful country in the world. So we aren’t going to look for any help coming out of the White House.
And indeed, the presidential election always gets more weight than it deserves when it comes to changing things in politics. The president neither deserves much credit nor blame as he gets when things are going well or going poorly.
Where your vote counts are closer to home. You can get a local Congress person’s ear without attending a $27,000 a plate dinner. They don’t need a war chest containing tens of millions of dollars to run so almost anyone can do it. Because they don’t need so much money to run, they are less beholden to and less courted by lobbyists. Remember where Gabby Giffords was shot, in a supermarket parking lot where she set up a table to speak to her constituents.
Congress has an approval rating of 11%, but their rejection rate is 90%! This year’s presidential election is already a lost cause, both choices are horrible, and the best we can hope for is ever which one gets in, they don’t do jack shit. That’s the best we can hope for in “the shining city on the hill.” How sickening.
But pay attention to your local elections. This is where you can make a difference, and these are the people who can make a difference for you.
There is a lot of politicians can do to save the middle class; close tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthy, finally enact single-payer health care, address the student loan crisis before it becomes the next bubble (if it’s not already too late). But we have to elect the people who will do those things first!
CEO’s better get on board because if the middle class isn’t around to buy your stuff, you’re fucked too. I know you had all of your hopes pinned on exporting your despicable practices world wide via TTIP but you got found out and that dream is dead.
Raise the gawd damn wages! That’s it. It really couldn’t be simpler. I don’t have some elaborate plan about this one because that’s all it takes. Sure, you’ll have to pay CEO’s something a little less than the 373 times more they make than the average worker and shareholder’s checks are going to be a little smaller but American workers want to be fairly compensated for their record productivity and you two groups are going to pay for it.
I’m still furious that Republicans who love nothing more than to spout off about democracy when talking about guns have stonewalled democracy by refusing to hold hearings on a new Supreme Court judge. In a crowded field, this is the second most flagrant abuse of democracy I have even seen.
But when we do finally have a full court, their first order of business should be overturning the first most flagrant abuse of democracy I have ever seen, Citizens United. This would go a long way to getting the money out of politics and to restoring our democracy.
If You Want Something Done Right…
It is my great hope that everyone called out above steps up and does the right thing. Failing that, and I’m not overflowing with optimism, the middle class will have to save itself. There are some things we can do.
Don’t let your kids follow the path of college debt which happens when they go to the best college that accepted them for all four years and took out loans to pay for it. There are many other paths to a college degree. They may take longer or involve a few years of community college, but those things are a small price to pay for graduate debt free.
Have more than one source of income whether that means real estate investments, a side hustle, or a part-time job. Today, everyone is potentially expendable, and you don’t want to be without any income should you lose your job.
Keep your life small. Don’t buy more house than you can afford, don’t buy crap you don’t need to impress people you don’t like, focus on experiences rather than things which have been proven to make you happier anyway.
Choose a place to live with a low cost of living. New York, Chicago, DC, San Francisco aren’t the only places to live you know. I made a move from NYC to New Orleans recently, and life is better here not least of all because it’s so much cheaper. (Seriously guys, it’s so awesome down here, you have no idea. I’m thinking of starting an LMM Southern Commune so holla if you’re interested.)
It’s never too early to start saving for retirement. It’s also never too late, but you need to play catch up. Look after your health. It’s expensive to be sick in America, and it can bankrupt you even if you have insurance.
And maybe, most importantly, share your financial literacy with everyone you can. That you’re on this site puts you ahead of a lot of your fellow Americans.
Money should not be a topic whispered about or not talked about at all. Share your mistakes, your successes, your advice. You can help other people more than you know by taking money out of the shadows and into the light.
Are We Doomed?
I hope not, but the tea leaves don’t look good. I don’t want a revolution; I don’t want people just to give up caring, I want America to be what it could be, what it was founded to be.
I don’t believe in “American exceptionalism, ” but I do believe that by and large, Americans are good people who deserve better than what has been happening in this country for the last couple of decades. Or maybe it’s exactly what we deserve. If that’s the case, we have to change it.