What Has Happened to the Middle Class, Anyway?

A nice piece by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times with good quotes from Cornell’s Thomas Hirschl.

One thing going on is that the major lifestyle and utility improvements of the past generation–really cheap access to communication, information, and entertainment–are overwhelmingly available to pretty much everyone. On the one hand, this means that recent economic growth assessed in terms of individual utility and well-being is much more equal then when assessed in terms of income. On the other hand, it means that access these benefits seems much more like simply the air we breathe then as a marker of class status, or achievement.

Thus a loss of the ability to securely attain enough of economic security to firmly hold the indicators of what past generations saw as middle-class life shows itself as a loss. And those who focus on security rather than on utility do not see these as offset buy the information revolution.

Patricia Cohen: Middle Class, but Feeling Economically Insecure: “As J. Bradford DeLong, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, put it…

People who thought they were upwardly mobile are finding themselves with no-higher real incomes [than their parents]. And people who thought they were sociologically stable are finding themselves poorer.

Money, of course, provides the wherewithal for acquiring what are considered the traditional bedrocks of a middle-class life: adequate health care, college for the children and retirement savings, generally with a car and a regular summer vacation thrown in.

Some version of that basket can be bought across a range of incomes, depending on location. It might include a used Pontiac instead of a late-model Lexus, or a small walk-up instead of a house with a backyard. And even though consumption was once a useful shorthand guide to a middle-class lifestyle, it is no longer as reliable in a world where cellphones and flat-screen TVs are staples in a majority of households below the poverty line and retirement savings, even among top earners, are often treated as a luxury.

There isn’t one middle class, but many middle classes. Still, what all of them ultimately require, experts say, is a sense of economic security.

“If there’s no security, there’s no middle class,” said Thomas Hirschl, a sociologist at Cornell and an author of “Chasing the American Dream.”

The types of jobs that pay middle-class wages have shifted since 1980. Fewer of these positions are in male-dominated production occupations, while a greater share are in workplaces more open to women.

That feeling of security has been eroded by several factors.

Median per capita income has basically been flat since 2000, adjusted for inflation. The typical American family makes slightly less than a typical family did 15 years ago. And while many goods have become cheaper or better, the price of three of the biggest middle-class expenditures — housing, college and health care — have gone up much faster than the rate of inflation.

Equally important, Mr. Hirschl found a high degree of income volatility among most Americans in the four decades between 1969 and 2011. At some point in their working lives, a full 70 percent earned enough to put them in the top fifth of earners, and as many as 30 percent reached the equivalent of $200,000 in 2009 dollars, or roughly the top 4 percent.

Similarly, nearly 80 percent at least temporarily plunged into a red zone, where their income dropped near or below the poverty line, or they were compelled to gain access to a social safety net program like food stamps or collect unemployment insurance. More than half of Americans ages 25 to 60 will experience at least one year hovering around the poverty line.

For most people, their 20s and 30s have traditionally been the least secure decades, with earning power building to a peak in their 40s and 50s, Mr. Hirschl said. But the recession upended that pattern for many Americans. Older workers experienced an extended bout of unemployment, often followed by a new job at a lower wage…

April 27, 2015

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