Is the Sun Setting On the U.S. Middle-Class?

You have to hand it to Americans; despite inexorable proof to the contrary, a surprisingly large number of them refuse to admit that the sun is setting on the middle class.

Now, that’s not just HGtransecon’s  observation. It’s also the implied, if not stated conclusion of a very recent Heartland Monitor poll, which is conducted quarterly and is sponsored by the insurer Allstate and the National Journal. And what they found is some pretty alarming stuff.

Essentially what the researchers found was that the U.S. middle class, which for the longest time was the world’s personification of optimism and upward mobility, is a very different story here in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Middle-Class Americans No Longer Dream of Getting Ahead

The dream of getting ahead is almost as prevalent as the hope that disco returns. No, getting ahead has become one of those things for the wealthy. For those out there like HGtransecon’s writers, it is the fear of falling behind that occupies our time and energy. The poll above found a similar prevailing attitude among Americans in the ever-shrinking middle-class as did we.

The poll found that 59 percent of those responding – a group of 1,000 people selected to be demographically representative of the United States as a whole – were fearful of falling below the level of their peers’ economic class over the next few years. Of those responding, ones that depicted themselves as lower middle class were even more anxious than the overall group – 68 percent were afraid that they would slip even farther down the economic ladder.

This pessimistic feeling about their future was followed closely by a weakened notion of what it meant to even belong to the middle class. More than half of the respondents – 54 percent – said that being middle class meant having a job and being able to pay your bills. Fewer than half – just 43 percent – took the more unrestrained view that membership in the middle class was a passport to financial and professional growth, buying a house and saving for the future.

“The key finding is that the middle class in America is more anxious than it is aspirational,” says Jeremy Ruch, a senior director at the strategic communications practice of FTI Consulting and one of the people who led the polling. “Some of the traditional characteristics of middle classness are not seen as realistic. They have been replaced by an anxiety about the possibility of falling out of their economic class.”

Disturbing as this finding is, it pales in comparison when we at HGtransecon think about the extent to which things that used to be the unquestioned trappings of middle-class life have come to be seen as upper-class luxuries.

A preponderance of those polled who considered themselves as middle class said that being able to pay for children’s college education was possible only for the upper class…that it had become so expensive that financial aid was the only way to achieve, what was considered just a couple of decades ago, as only for the poorest Americans. Forty-three percent thought that only the upper class had sufficient savings to deal with a job loss, and 40 percent believed only the upper class could retire comfortably.

Coming from what used to be known as the land of opportunity, this is a radical shift. America was founded as a country where the middle class could prosper; not just royalty. Thomas Jefferson frequently bragged that America had no paupers and only a few who were wealthy enough to live without labor.

Whatever Happened to Honesty and Hard Work Paying Dividends?

This was supposed to be the place where, as Bill Clinton liked to put it in his run-up to his first-term as President, if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could get ahead. Americans bragged that the world’s “huddled masses” regularly confirmed their belief in the American dream by voting with their feet.

But the respondents to the Heartland poll recognize that the world has changed. Nearly two-thirds of those who described themselves as middle class said their generation had less job and financial security than their parents. More than half said they had less opportunity to advance.

That’s astounding. And we at HGtransecon think it’s an outrage and an affront to every hard-working, or wanting to work-hard, American.

The wealthy elites can be snotty about the economic instincts of ordinary Americans, but in this case Joe Every-Man seems to have gotten it right. Those responding to this poll were absolutely spot on when asked to estimate the income of the typical American middle-class family today: They said between $60,000 and $65,000 per year. According to U.S. Census data from the Current Population Survey, median income for a family of four is $68,274.

And a preponderance of economists think the disquiet expressed in this poll is a reaction to a very real and very new threat.

“I don’t blame them,” Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the MIT, has been quoted as saying. “They are falling behind, so it is not surprising that they are feeling uneasy.

“The disappointment and the anger of the middle class is not just whining, it is based on real economics,” Brynjolfsson said. “The job security and the income of the middle class is declining, and so is social mobility.”

The saddest irony revealed in the poll is that ordinary Americans agree with the wealthy elites about what it takes to get ahead, or at least to stay afloat, in the 21st-century America. A full fifty percent of the respondents said that college was the best way to earn and maintain membership in the middle class. But almost many – 49 percent – thought that only the upper class could afford to pay for their children’s higher education.

We have always been good at focusing on the immediate threat, and the nonstop media cycle has only aggravated that trait: One week it is Hurricane Sandy, the next it is a plunge in Gold prices or Cyprus threatening default, or a pudgy little dictator in North Korea beating his chest and threatening to nuke South Korea or even the U.S. mainland, and the latest were the tragic events during the Boston Marathon.

But for the average, used-to-be middle-class Americans—as well as the Western industrialized countries– the really big story is the slow, unstoppable degeneration of the middle class. Watching it happen, as I’ve said about many things lately, is like watching a python squeeze the life out of its victim. And the pain is now being felt even in normally optimistic America.

Enigma-in-Chief, Richard Nixon, used to talk about the “Silent Majority” after ending a debilitating and humiliating defeat that the United States suffered in Vietnam. He first used it in a speech in 1969 during which he pleaded for the support of the American people for his plan to get the U.S. back to normalcy after a grueling and destructive war. He emphasized the need for the middle-class in America to show their resolve or we would surely be witnessing the sun setting on the great light of democracy that America represented.

And here we are again, after not one, but two expensive and ill-conceived wars and we have another President trying to bring normalcy back to the U.S. And the Silent Majority needs to make a stand again, only this time they need to approach the 2014 and 2016 elections as their own lines in the sand. It’s time to get rid of the obstructionists and the lying rabble-rousers in Congress who are only there to enrich their own lives, not the lives of average Americans.

I just hope the Silent Majority gets vocal.

And they’d better wake the hell up and do it before the sun sets on our last opportunity and it’s too damn late to undo the harm being perpetrated by the obstructionism in Congress that has been has been taken one helluva toll since 2010.


Harvey A. Gold

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  1 comment for “Is the Sun Setting On the U.S. Middle-Class?

  1. yvonne insh
    April 28, 2013 at 10:33 am

    thanks hg…….
    as usual a good one we need to start rallying for 2014 now not at the last minute

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