MIDDLE CLASS IN DECLINE - Radical change not likely

Jeanette Kendall

If anything is to change regarding middle class, it has to start with political policy, said Illinois Central College sociology professor Maxine Cordell-Brunton.

In a capitalistic society, the only thing to tame it is the government, Cordell-Brunton added.

“Capitalism at its heart is a brutal, nasty economic system,” she said, “It’s designed to create have/have nots.”

The big dilemma of the nation is trying to find the right balance in a society where the gap is widening between the have and have nots, Cordell-Brunton said.

According to textbooks she uses in class, the richest 20 percent of families in America own 85 percent of the wealth.

There is a myth that the gap between the rich and poor is getting better, but at best, Cordell-Brunton said it is staying the same.

But defining middle class is not only about money. Rather, Cordell-Brunton said there are three defining factors. They are education, income and occupational prestige. Some would add power as a fourth, she said.

“It’s not always so easy to define class,” Cordell-Brunton said.

Changing times

Within the past 30 or 40 years, the structuring of the middle class has changed as well.

In 1957, Cordell-Brunton’s father went straight to work in a factory. As a union laborer, her father was able to earn good wages, making his family close to upper middle class.

In 1995, when Cordell-Brunton, who had a Ph.D.. under her belt, began teaching at ICC, she was only earning $25,000 a year. However, a college professor has status, she added.

“The point is, it’s not always consistent. There can be examples of people who have more power, less money,” she said.

From 1980 to 2005, the increases in income have not been equal among the different classes, Cordell-Brunton said.

In the book “Sociology” by John Macionis, it states that although median income doubled between 1950 and 1973, it has grown by only 23 percent since then.

“The rich have gotten richer. You can’t argue the poor. Their income’s only gone up 2.5 percent,” while she said the rich has gone up 60 percent, and the “middle are hanging on.”

When prices, such as the cost of gas increases, it hurts the poor more, Cordell-Brunton said, because they do not have disposable income.

“Economists are going to tell you it’s going to take young people longer to get their middle class lifestyle than their parents,” she said.

This is due, she said, to a different economy and job structure today.

Cordell-Brunton defines a good job today as one that includes a decent living wage, benefits and an annual salary increase. These types of jobs were abundant up until the 1970s, but now it is a must for people to invest in two or four years at a college or trade school to acquire a good job, but there are no guarantees, Cordell-Brunton said.

“You’re postponing getting into the paid labor market,” she said. “The other thing is you have to pay for (your education).”

This, she said, puts young people fresh out of college, starting out in the job market “behind the 8 ball” because they already have a substantial debt.

Another thing that is hindering the middle class is a nation built on credit.

“Access to all this credit has essentially served the purpose of putting middle class in peasantry,” she said. “Mom and dad saved money to do things. They didn’t use credit. Now we have an economy based on credit, but it’s not free; you have to pay it back.”

What will happen?

The optimist would say the middle class will not disappear, just change. The pessimist would agree with the late well-known communist Karl Marx, who said the have nots will revolt,

Cordell-Brunton said, adding that her own opinion is that the system will readjust itself.

An economist would have to address whether there may be another Great Depression, Cordell-Brunton said.

Before the Great Depression, poverty was an individual issue, but when depression happened, society had to address the problem, she said.

“Something had to be done to set up the economy,” she added.

This is when FDR created “The New Deal” to support the economy.

Some may parallel this, in a slight way, to the recent stimulus checks distributed by President George W. Bush.

Marx argued that with capitalism there is constant conflict between the employer trying to keep costs down and make a profit and the employee trying to earn a decent wage.

While Cordell-Brunton said capitalism is a good economic system because it promotes productivity, innovation and a higher standard of living, no one, she said, would want to live under pure capitalism.

“There are no checks and balances,” she said.

“Imagine if there was no FDA or FAA.”

Without regulation, consumers would put themselves at the mercy of corporate business, she said.

Cordell-Brunton said she is not sure whether there is resentment among the middle class, although she admits they are surely feeling pinched.

“They’re having to work harder and longer for it seems less pay, but who do they hold accountable?

“When the government says we created jobs, we don’t say, ‘Really? How many are good jobs with benefits?’”

Another question people should ask of the government is who they are really representing, Cordell-Brunton said.

“Every politician would say they represent the middle class, but the middle class has to ask, ‘Do they really represent the middle class or someone else?’”

It is not in the wealthy’s best interest for the middle class to disappear, Cordell-Brunton said.

“Where do they go? Are they going to be invited to the upper class?," she said

“No. They’re going to be oppressed,” she said.

This in its worse-case scenario could lead to the masses demanding a re-distribution of resources.

“I think it’s in the interest of the rich to make sure some of those resources are shared. The worse-case scenario is revolt and they don’t want that,” she said.

No one knows how much wider the gap is getting between the rich and middle class because no one keeps track of that data, Cordell-Brunton said.

But one thing that is known is that the standard of living for probably 80 percent of Americans has increased between 1980 to 2005, Cordell-Brunton said.

Perhaps it is this standard of living of having the latest trends and fashions that has another trend Cordell-Brunton noted on the rise — college grads moving back with their parents.

“More and more you need two incomes to achieve that middle class lifestyle,” Cordell-Brunton said.

However, more people are also postponing marriage.

With a wide variety of opinions in the world of sociology, Cordell-Brunton said she is not sure she can predict the future well.

“I don’t see radical changes taking place,” she said.