What Has Happened to the Middle Class?

As I grew up in America, there was a prevailing narrative about the success of what was known as the ‘middle class’. These were people who clearly were not poor and yet could not be considered ‘rich’.

As the decades passed, the ‘middle class’ began to collect another description. People were categorized as ‘lower middle class’ or perhaps ‘upper middle class’. No one knew just what that meant but it served to give writers and policy makers justification for talking about us according to some arbitrary family earnings level or category.

It also took notice of the fact that the ‘middle class’ was growing and becoming an ever larger percentage of the general population. By the end of the last century, everyone toward the lower end of the economic spectrum aspired to move upward such that they could call themselves ‘upper middle class’ if up to that point they were only ‘middle class’.

This virtually universal effort to move upward by those not considered in the ‘rich’ class, generated a perpetual growth in the economy. Mindful that life never moves in a straight line, that upward trend did not falter. That’s no longer the case. What I mean by that is fewer and fewer of us are benefiting from a strong economy.

That doesn’t mean people are not continuing to try and move upward, but it reflects our increasing inability to reach upward toward the ‘rich’ class. That was and has been a motivational driver for Americans since the end of World War II.

Upward mobility, both from a motivational perspective and in reality, was considered the antidote to communism. We went through multiple traumas where countries around the world rejected capitalism in favor of communism. It was the  individual who was motivated to succeed, vs the imposition of motivation by the state. The great potential conflict was between us in the US and the Soviet Union. It drove foreign policy, economic policy and government spending to an extreme.

Then the Soviet Union collapsed and all of a sudden, we didn’t have that bogey man to motivate us. The constant refrain of capitalism vs communism diminished to the point where today it’s there, but not part of the every day lexicon.

The technical term used today to describe what’s happening is socioeconomic mobility. It’s reflected by the fact that fewer of us are living better than our parents with many of us doing worse than our parents. How that’s measured is up for debate.

There was a report from the World Economic Forum that ranked socioeconomic mobility across  the world’s industrialized countries. The numbers as applied to these countries has Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland at the top. These are the countries that today are derided by those on the right as ‘socialist’ countries. They are not ‘communist’, but have moved beyond the status we ascribe to as ‘capitalist’. The US appears on the same list in 27th place.

Another study by researchers from three major universities and the Census Bureau looked back as far as 1850 and concluded that socioeconomic mobility in the US is worse today than it has been since 1850. That tells me there is an issue we need to address as a nation.

It’s relatively easy to suggest all this has racial overtones. But that’s a somewhat false narrative. Yes, racism still exists. Cultural norms take a long time to change, especially with so many of us living longer than before. And yes, there is still a racial gap when it comes to mobility. White youths who grow up in poverty are twice as likely to escape that poverty than black youth.

I happen to live in Florida which among the 50 states, ranks 45th in spending on education. Some of that is because our senior citizens tend vote for government representatives who choose to ignore spending money on childhood education. That same motivation also translates to pre-K efforts which studies have shown is a transformative time for children to be exposed to formal knowledge.

Unfortunately, all this tends to perpetuate the need for more prisons, mental health facilities and homeless shelters. Like the old ad that talked about changing the oil in your car, “You can pay me now or you can pay me later”. I think it would be cheaper to spend some money now rather than come up with whatever it takes to keep people from rioting in the streets before the end of this century.

There’s no quick fix to bring back the middle class. But it does need to become a larger discussion at every level. If we expect to hand over a stable and viable world to our children and grandchildren, it must be addressed.

by Tony Kendzior \ 18 JAN 2020

2 thoughts on “What Has Happened to the Middle Class?

  1. Tony Broadhurst

    Well, you could look at some large cities like NY and DC… and see what they spend per student and you’ll agree that throwing money at the problem is not the answer. It’s cultural; I might suggest reading “The Great Society” by Amity Shlaes for an interesting perspective.

    On the other hand….if you can show up on time and pass a drug test in the US, the world is your oyster. If you earn more than $34,000 in the U.S., you know what the rest of the earth calls you? A “one percenter”.

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