Everyday Americans just keep falling behind

Why the future of America’s middle class is so financially fragile.

Being in the middle is supposed to keep you economically safe.

You have a fairly secure job with enough money to buy a home, put more than enough food on the table and take vacations. You can afford to upgrade your car every seven years or so.

In the middle, it’s assumed that you have good health insurance through your job, with co-pays that are manageable. You’re able to save for retirement; maybe not enough to be a millionaire, but you’ll be able to retire by your mid or late 60s. You might even have a pension.

And, if you’re fortunate, you can save enough to send your children to an in-state college and have them graduate with no — or very little — debt.

Middle is comfortable, and your envy of the folks doing so much better is kept somewhat in check knowing you’ve made a decent life for you and your family. You really can’t complain.

That’s in the ideal world of middle-income America. But the Great Recession and the economic slumps since have created a middle that isn’t so secure. The high price of housing, wage stagnation, job insecurity, crushing childcare expenses, rising health care premiums and college costs the size of a mortgage are pushing the middle down several ladder rungs.

“Middle-income Americans have fallen further behind financially in the new century,” according to findings from the Pew Research Center.

The Brookings Institution this year launched the “Future of the Middle Class” initiative. In a recent analysis for this effort, Eleanor Krause, senior research assistant for the Center on Children and Families, and Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow at the center, highlighted several reasons we should be worried about the American middle class — including the economic prospects of their children.

“Stagnant incomes and falling wages have meant that fewer Americans are growing up to be better off than their parents,” they wrote. “Upward absolute intergenerational mobility was once the almost-universal experience among America’s youth. No longer.”

If you’re a struggling middle, no one has to tell you how hard it is to make all the ends meet. Still, your battles need to be chronicled and examined — otherwise you’ll be further marginalized.

So for this month for the Color of Money Book Club, I’m recommending “Squeezed: Why Our families Can’t Afford America,” by Alissa Quart, executive editor of the nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

“The middle class is endangered on all sides, and the promised rewards of belonging to it have all but evaporated,” Quart writes. “This decline has also led to a degradation of self-image.”

Quart wraps unsettling statistics about the downward move of the middle with stories of its class members — lawyers, teachers, pharmacists and other professionals — who feel betrayed. They did what they thought were the right things, and still it wasn’t enough to keep them from flailing financially.

Even some folks who are part of the upper-middle class are skidding down, although there is less empathy for them. How can you feel sorry for families making six-figure salaries and complaining they are just getting by?

Yet they do struggle. There’s Amy and her husband, who together earn $150,000 while living in Silicon Valley. But they spend more than half their monthly income on their mortgage. Childcare accounts for 30 percent.

A 2014 Brookings report, “The Wealthy Hand-to-Mouth,” defined this group as households who live paycheck-to-paycheck. They have little to no savings despite owning a home or having retirement accounts.

“The stresses felt by quasi-privileged people contending with income disparity may seem less real than those suffered by the many,” Quart writes. “But they are real in their own way, and they also reveal much about the concentration of extreme wealth in some American cities, and the gaps between the 1 percent and everyone else.”

Quart offers some solutions, although what makes the book compelling are the stories. You meet people, who for various reasons — health issues, childcare, crushing student loans, underemployment or job displacements — are just barely hanging on to middle-income status. They are a job or health crisis away from slipping even further.

“Squeezed” gives voice to their stress. It’s not easy being too rich to be poor but not poor enough to get financial assistance or sympathy. The struggle for these families is real.

— Washington Post Writers Group

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Think Tank Cowork in Everett, Washington on July 19, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
The first co-working space opens in downtown Everett

Think Tank Cowork’s owner hopes the facility will inspire other business owners to call Everett home.

New LGI Homes on Thursday, May 12, 2022 in Sultan, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
The real estate market took an abrupt turn this spring

Mortgage rates are up, but home inspections, seller concessions are back on the table for buyers.

The Lab@Arlington is a new one-stop shop for entrepreneurs and inventors located at 404 N. Olympic Ave. (Photo credit: TheLab@Arlington)
New Arlington business incubator opens

TheLab@Arlington is a new one-stop shop for entrepreneurs, inventors and business owners.

Patrons view the 787 exhibition Thursday morning at the Boeing Future of Flight Musuem at Paine Field on October 8, 2020. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Paine Field was county’s No. 1 tourist attraction. Not now

Snohomish County officials hope festivals and outdoor activities will fill Paine Field tourist gap.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Stanwood in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Stanwood Chamber of Commerce ‘can’t keep the doors open’

The chamber is set to shut down at the end of the month due to financial challenges.

Maria Rios, a ferry worker of 13 years, helps Frank and Fran Butler, both of Washington, D.C., check out as the couple purchases food on Thursday, July 21, 2022, aboard the MV Suquamish ferry between Mukilteo and Clinton, Washington. Rios said food service returned to the Suquamish about three weeks prior. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Drink up! Happy hour on the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry is back

More galleys are reopening as pandemic restrictions scale back. Get out of your car for concessions just like at the ballpark.

OnTrac Logistics has leased a building now under construction at Bay Wood Business Park on Everett's waterfront. The shipping company will open a facility there later this year that will employ 400 people. (Artist Rendering/Broderick Group.)
New Everett shipping facility to generate 400 jobs

OnTrac Logistics has leased a new building on the 12½-acre Baywood Business Park on Everett’s waterfront.

The Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum at Paine Field in Everett. (Janice Podsada / The Herald) 20220419
Flying Heritage Museum to reopen with new owner at Paine Field

Walmart heir Steuart Walton bought the historic aircraft and artifacts. The museum is set to reopen within the year.

Renee's Contemporary Clothing store at 2820 Colby Ave. on July 11, 2022. The iconic downtown Everett store is closing in August after 29 years in business. (Janice Podsada/The Herald)
Renee’s, another iconic downtown Everett store, is closing

After 29 years in business, the longstanding clothing shop will shutter. In-person sales slowed when stores reopened.

FILE - The logo for Boeing appears on a screen above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Boeing is reporting a money-losing quarter as both its civilian-airplane division and the defense business are struggling. Boeing said Wednesday, April 27, 2022,  that it lost $1.24 billion in the first quarter and took large write-downs for several programs.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)
Boeing sees best month for aircraft deliveries since 2019

The company delivered 51 passenger and cargo planes in June, its best month for deliveries in recent years.

The Alderwood Towne Center, a 105,000 square-foot strip mall, is located at 3105-3225 Alderwood Mall Blvd. The mall, which has been sold, is home to 20 businesses, including anchor tenants Marshalls and Michaels. Photo Credit: CBRE Group.
Lynnwood strip mall near Link Light Rail Station sold

Alderwood Towne Center, home to 20 businesses, could eventually be redeveloped to take advantage of light rail.

James Berntson shows how his farm uses a trellis system to control tomato plants on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at Radicle Roots Farm in Snohomish, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Backyard business: Snohomish farm thrives on less than one acre.

James Berntson grew Radicle Roots Farm using smart crop planning and organic practices.