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

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