Monday, May 11, 2015

Middle Class Gone Missing

Once upon a time, most everyone I knew belonged -- or wanted to belong -- to "the middle class."

It was simple. You went to school, got a good education and a well-paying job. You married, bought a house or a condo, had kids, and you all took a vacation once or maybe twice a year. You retired and lived a decent lifestyle thanks to retirement benefits and savings.

For some immigrant families, like my own, it took a couple of generations before all the cousins were going to college. Still, it didn't take that long for us to arrive squarely in the middle class.

Now comes the hard part. Sometime in the last 30 years, the middle class has gone missing in the U.S. Increasingly, corporations have shifted high-paying jobs abroad where labor is cheaper. More and more union jobs have disappeared. More and more Americans have been forced into lower-paying service jobs, most of which don't offer benefits.

The real kick in the pants came in 2008 when the housing bubble burst, sending millions of Americans scrambling to pay their mortgages. Millions of homeowners foreclosed.

So where does that leave us? The term "middle class" doesn't mean what it used to. It makes a lot of Americans nervous, because the economy is a lot more precarious that it used to be, particularly for those closer to the bottom. We can no longer assume that we can afford to get to college, or that getting an education will pay off. We can't count on getting ahead the way we used to. And we certainly aren't sure about how our kids and their kids will fare.

And so along comes a piece in The New York Times today on why the Presidential candidates are no longer referring to "the middle class."

"The once ubiquitous term 'middle class' has gone conspicuously missing from the 2016 campaign trail, as candidates and their strategists grasp for new terms for an unsettled economic era. The phrase, long synonymous with the American dream, now evokes anxiety, an uncertain future and a lifestyle that is increasingly out of reach."

What term replaces "the middle class?" 

According to the Times, Mrs. Clinton refers to “everyday Americans.” 

"Scott Walker prefers 'hardworking taxpayers.' Rand Paul says he speaks for 'people who work for the people who own businesses.' Bernie Sanders talks about 'ordinary Americans.'”

The tricky part is that in order to win, a Presidential candidate must appeal to those of us in the middle. So keep your eyes and ears open. Listen closely to what the candidates would otherwise call the middle class. Better yet, pay attention to what these candidates promise to do to try to help Americans struggling in the middle.

Oh, one more thing: According to the Times piece, approximately 51 percent of Americans now consider themselves middle- or upper-middle class (that according to a Gallop poll. Compare that number to 60 percent who identified themselves in the same way in 2008.

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