PEORIA TIMES-OBSERVER SPECIAL REPORT - Middle class in decline

DeWayne Bartels

For baby-boomers the middle class was an easy thing to identify. They knew it on sight.

Middle class meant dad went to work and mom stayed home with the kids. Middle class meant two cars in the driveway next to a well maintained lawn.

In the middle part of the last century even the least-educated had the opportunity to enter the middle class in that era’s industrial economy.

However, as America has entered a knowledge-based economy and the  American family is less structured, middle class status has become harder to define and harder to attain or maintain. 

Definition, anyone?

Dante Chinni, a columnist with the Christian Science Monitor, offers a sarcastic definition of the middle class.

“Everyone wants to believe they are middle class. But this eagerness has led the definition to be stretched like a bungee cord — used to defend/attack/describe everything. The Drum Major Institute places the range for middle class at individuals making between $25,000 and $100,000 a year. Ah yes, there’s a group of people bound to run into each other while house-hunting,” he wrote.

There is a great deal of ambiguity when it comes to what defines the middle class.

An October 2007 MSNBC poll asking, “How much do you need to earn to be considered middle class?” brought in  85,954 responses.

The poll showed the majority — 32 percent — set the figure at $60,000 to $80,000. But, the range was wide ranging from $25,000 to $150,000. 

The New York Times ran a story, in April, stating the $20 hour wage as the quintessential middle class wage. The story showed that $20 wage benchmark is becoming a thing of the past for a growing number of Americans, no matter what their education level is. 

Louis Uchitelle, in a New York Times article, wrote Americans greeted the loss of high wages with protests, but eventually acquiescence set in.

That very thing was seen here in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Caterpillar and the United Auto Workers clashed over wages, especially the introduction of a two-tier wage system in which new hires were paid considerably less than veteran employees. Yet, eventually the fight died down and acceptance won out.   

Politicians in both parties maintain education is the route back to a strong middle class.

“But the demand isn’t sufficient to absorb all the workers that the leaders would educate. Even now, roughly 15 percent of college-educated workers find themselves in jobs for which they are overqualified, the Economic Policy Institute reports, and many of these jobs pay less than $20 an hour,” Uchitelle found.

“The trend in the hourly work force is striking. Take only the peak years in each business cycle, starting in 1979. The proportion earning at least $20 an hour declined from 23 percent that year, to 20 percent in 1980, to 18 percent in 1989, and to 16 percent in 2000.”

In decline

The U.S. Census Bureau says the income levels of those in the middle and lower income levels is on the decline. 

“Since 1969, the share of aggregate household income controlled by the lowest income quintile has decreased from 4.1 percent to 3.6 percent in 1997, while the share to the highest quintile increased from 43.0 percent to 49.4 percent,” the U. S. Census Bureau reports.

This means only workers at the very top earning levels are experiencing real wage gains, while those in the middle and lower wage levels are experiencing real wage losses.

Part of the blame, the census bureau says may be more liberal attitudes about living arrangements.

“Long-run changes in society’s living arrangements have taken place also tending to exacerbate household income differences. For example, divorces, marital separations, births out of wedlock, and the increasing age at first marriage have led to a shift away from married-couple households ...  Since non-married-couple households tend to have lower income and income that is less equally distributed than other types of households (partly because of the likelihood of fewer earners in them), changes in household composition have been associated with growing income inequality,” the U.S. Census Bureau reported.

Regardless of the income figure people use, according to a growing number of people, America has spinal problems if the middle class is the backbone of the nation, and there are no easy answers to rectifying the situation. Sen. John Kerry (D- Mass.) is among them.

“We are squeezing the middle class, we are losing the middle class, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing wider and wider, not closing as it used to be."