MIDDLE CLASS MALAISE
American Exceptionalism, the idea that we are different, special, even superior, to other nations is the sort of feel good patriotic palaver that should be understood for what it is. Nonetheless, certain claims are not without merit. One in particular deserves attention because it has long been a legitimate source of pride for Americans, and a defining feature of our society. We’re talking about the American middle classes,a prominent segment of our society almost from the beginning and ever since. Those who arrived here from Europe left societies organized around narrow aristocratic elites that flourished amidst an overwhelmingly lower class population. A middle class was not absent (especially in the cities), still it’s numbers were, in most instances, limited and it’s well-being dependent upon the preferences and patronage of the upper classes.
Europe’s hereditary aristocrats by and large never settled here. An American upper class would emerge but it was stocked primarily with highly aggressive and successful men of the middle classes. We had our poor – slaves, indentured servants, apprentices, agricultural workers, seamen, fishermen, frontiersmen and widows. But more noteworthy and certainly unique was our large and growing middle classes. In the colonies farmers often owned their lands; apprentices and indentured servants could eventually get ahead, craftsmen could flourish, storekeepers prosper and professionals rely upon a steady clientele. And as the U.S. passed through the 19th and 20th centuries a solid dynamic, broad middle class base, then expanded further owing to the addition of teachers, clergy, merchants, salesmen, newspaper editors, , inventors, local bankers, skilled factory workers, etc., joining the ranks. America took pride in its outsized middle class, considered it responsible for the dynamism, optimism, stability and solid moral values that characterized U.S. society.
Little wonder then that we’ve become concerned about the middle class in recent times. All is not well, we’re told. The middle class appears to be shrinking (at least at its lower levels, especially within the African-American community), with large numbers in jeopardy,barely hanging on. And there is concern about the future, fear that their children will no longer enjoy a standard of living once readily within reach. For a time such worries could be deferred by having two wage earners in the family and benefitting from rising home values and stock prices. But the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and the attendant financial crisis and painfully slow recovery since have exposed certain realities and threatened middle class assumptions of long standing.
The job market has been unable to absorb those seeking employment, let alone the backlog of people who lost jobs in recent years. New technologies have wiped out many positions, as have substantial cutbacks in government employment. Wages have been largely stagnant for some time. Of the job categories of the future needing to be filled, only 42% are expected to pay wages sufficient for maintaining a middle class existence (a somewhat elusive concept given the cost of living variations around the country). Add to this the fact that out-of-pocket health care costs have increased and that defined pension benefits are no longer the norm. Consider also that home prices have not recovered, bank interest rates remain depressingly low, millions have fled the stock market (and thus lost out during its recent recovery) and college costs continue to rise and overall household indebtedness remains disturbingly high. All this has created an environment that undermines any sense of security and erodes confidence about the future.
Downward mobility is rarely, if ever, discussed in America. Optimism about the future has always characterized our public conversation. The middle class has occasionally suffered setbacks in the past, but has never lost faith or seriously questioned the reality of the “American Dream”. But it could happen. Then what?