Column: Twilight of the middle class? - Chrystia Freeland

Thu Apr 25, 2013 4:13pm EDT

Boarded up homes line the streets in the Garden Home neighborhood in the 1st district where unemployment numbers are high in Milwaukee, Wisconsin December 14, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck

Boarded up homes line the streets in the Garden Home neighborhood in the 1st district where unemployment numbers are high in Milwaukee, Wisconsin December 14, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Darren Hauck

Related Topics

(Chrystia Freeland is a Reuters columnist. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

By Chrystia Freeland

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It's evening in America. That is the worrying news from the latest Heartland Monitor Poll, conducted quarterly and sponsored by the insurer Allstate and National Journal.

The researchers made a striking finding: The U.S. middle class, long the world's embodiment of optimism and upward mobility, today is telling a very different story. The chief preoccupation of middle-class Americans is not the dream of getting ahead, it is the fear of falling behind.

The poll found that 59 percent of its respondents — a group of 1,000 people selected to be demographically representative of the United States as a whole — were afraid of falling out of their economic class over the next few years. Those who described themselves as lower middle class were even more scared than the overall group — 68 percent feared they could slip even lower down the economic ladder.

This wary vision of the future went hand-in-hand with a diminished idea of what it meant to belong to the middle class. More than half of the people polled — 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 expansive 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," Jeremy Ruch, a senior director at the strategic communications practice of FTI Consulting and one of the people who led the polling, told me. "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 They have been replaced by an anxiety about the possibility of falling out of their economic class."

Even more arresting was 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. Nearly half — 46 percent — of the respondents who described themselves as middle class said that being able to pay for children's college education was possible only for the upper class. Forty-three percent thought that only the upper class had enough savings to deal with a job loss, and 40 percent believed only the upper class could save enough to retire comfortably.

For the land of opportunity, this is a seismic shift. America was created as a country where the middle class could prosper — Thomas Jefferson crowed that America had no paupers and few who were rich enough to live without labor.

This was supposed to be the place where, as Bill Clinton liked to put it, if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could get ahead. And Yanks gloried in the fact that the world's huddled masses regularly demonstrated their belief in the American dream by voting with their feet.

The respondents to the Heartland poll know 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.

The academy can be sniffy about the economic instincts of ordinary folk, but in this case Joe Public seems to have gotten it right. The respondents were on target when asked to estimate the income of the typical American middle-class family: 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 most economists think the anxiety articulated in this poll is a reaction to a real and new peril.

"I don't blame them," Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me. "They are falling behind, so it is not surprising that they are feeling anxious.

"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 paradox revealed in the poll is that ordinary Americans agree with the elites about what it takes to get ahead, or at least to stay afloat, in the 21st-century United States. Half of the respondents said that college was the best way to earn and maintain membership in the middle class. But almost half — 49 percent — thought that only the upper class could afford to pay for their children's higher education.

Humans have always been good at focusing on the immediate threat, and the nonstop media cycle has only exacerbated that trait: One week it is Hurricane Sandy, the next it is Cyprus, and then it is the Boston Marathon explosions.

For the Western industrialized countries, however, the really big story is the slow, inexorable decline of the middle class. Watching it happen is about as exciting as studying paint as it dries or a frog as it boils. But the pain is now being felt even in perennially optimistic America. There are still a few hours left before midnight — let's hope we can act in time.

(Chrystia Freeland is the managing director and editor, Consumer News at Thomson Reuters. Prior, she was U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times. Before that, Freeland was deputy editor of the Financial Times, in London, editor of the FT's Weekend edition, editor of FT.com, UK News editor, Moscow bureau chief and Eastern Europe correspondent. From 1999 to 2001, Freeland served as deputy editor of The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper. Freeland began her career working as a stringer in Ukraine, writing for the FT, The Washington Post and The Economist.

She is the author of two books: "Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-rich and the Fall of Everyone Else," published by Penguin in 2012 and "Sale of the Century: The Inside Story of the Second Russian Revolution," published by Crown Publishing books in 2000.)

(Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

FILED UNDER:
We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (2)
gunste wrote:
In almost seems that there is a new class of citizen in the US. One of our local papers has been publishing the salaries of civil servants(?) in various jurisdictions. A huge fraction of these salaries are in excess of $150,000, including overtime, especially for police and fire personnel. The most incredible case is the head of the Bay Area Transportation board, who collected a salary of $406,000, plus a housing allowance and car allowance for a total of around $450,000 and six weeks of vacation time (which can be converted to cash if not used?) – that is more than the President of the US collects. Bus drivers in that organization earn around $75,000 to 85,000. On top of that, these people have very good retirement plans, much better than private industry offers.
A new class of overcompensated public employees who get great benefits at the expense of the hard pressed taxpayers.

Apr 26, 2013 5:21pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
gunste wrote:
In almost seems that there is a new class of citizen in the US. One of our local papers has been publishing the salaries of civil servants(?) in various jurisdictions. A huge fraction of these salaries are in excess of $150,000, including overtime, especially for police and fire personnel. The most incredible case is the head of the Bay Area Transportation board, who collected a salary of $406,000, plus a housing allowance and car allowance for a total of around $450,000 and six weeks of vacation time (which can be converted to cash if not used?) – that is more than the President of the US collects. Bus drivers in that organization earn around $75,000 to 85,000. On top of that, these people have very good retirement plans, much better than private industry offers.
A new class of overcompensated public employees who get great benefits at the expense of the hard pressed taxpayers.

Apr 26, 2013 5:21pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.