Increasingly, economists and other social scientists are identifying evidence of a "consumer arms race" -- that in order to keep up, many middle class Americans are shelling out cash for goods and services in order to keep up with the rich and almost-rich.
Case in point: personal trainers for kids.
In Waldorf, Md., outside of Washington D.C., football stardom at North Point High School starts at the Pinnacle Performance gym.
Twice a week, Montrel Hunter comes here to bench press, push a sled, do conditioning drills and get yelled at by Pinnacle founder and drill-master Fran Penny. An incoming senior, Hunter plays wide receiver in football and runs track.
The cost: $20 per session. For his family, it's money well spent.
"I figure what's a few hundreds bucks, for a period," says his father, Tim Hunter. "It's gonna help him. Let's do it."
Montrel Hunter plays football and runs track at North Point High School in Waldorf, Md. He works out at Pinnacle Performance. (Scott Tong/Marketplace)
Tim Hunter's a career employee for the federal Government Accountability Office. His family lives in the middle-class suburb of Waldorf in Charles County. The county's income per capita is $35,751, compared to the state average of $27,915. Median home value: $319,000.
To Hunter the father, training sessions are an investment in his son's broader future.
"You have a better chance of being successful in any sport, or any career you have," Hunter says. "You know, somebody is always out there to outwork you."
Somebody. As in kids from rival La Plata High School. A handful of La Plata boys arrive for a training session an hour later.
"We don't like them and they don't like us," says Korrey Blount. His son, Demarco, is also a two-sport athlete. "It's all in fun, though, but they're doing the extras just like our boys are doing the extras right now."
They spend, so we spend, so they spend more.
It all makes for business success at Pinnacle Performance. Owner Fran Penny started the gym five years ago, in the depths of the recession. Still, he says revenue has grown 50 percent every year. Penny has to turn kids away.
"I have parents in here with kids 6, 8 years old, trying to get their kid in here," Penny says.
Pinnacle Performance, in Waldorf, Md., trains athletes from rival schools. Fran Penny is the founder and owner. (Scott Tong/Marketplace)
Penny grew up in Waldorf, which not long ago consisted of a quiet road and some slot machines.
"I don't believe that rich kids should get the best training and poor kids have to suffer," Penny says. "I want to help out the kids in this area."
Parent after parent in Charles County talks of mobility. Many are recent entrants to the middle class, living in an up-and-coming county. The feeling is, you have to pay to play. You have to push your kids at football games and wrestling matches.
"I've been screaming at him, 'get up, get up!'" recalls Dave Pipes, whose son also trains at Pinnacle. "And he's like 'I can't! I can't!' And he's crying, tears are coming out. But I'm like 'Dave, the only reason I do it is because I push you.' I didn't get pushed for grades, I didn't get pushed to go to college. And I didn't get pushed for sports. My dad didn't even know I went to sports a lot of the times. I vowed not to do that."
Isaiah Purvis plays football and basketball at Thomas Stone High School in Charles County, Md. (Scott Tong/Marketplace)
In fact, studies suggest getting kids in sports does help them in their futures, says economist Valerie Ramey of the University of California-San Diego.
"The question, though, is whether parents are being forced to overinvest," Ramey says. "Trying to get into colleges, on the offseason, being on the travel team, being on more than one sport, also doing the music."
She's concerned about heightened competition for spots at brand-name colleges is fueling overspending of money, and about parents' time. Ramey's own study found educated parents are spending more time taking care of their kids – she presumes chauffeuring them around to resume-building activities -- rather than working, growing the economy and paying into the Social Security system. It's a surprising finding, she says, given the relatively high wages these college-educated parents are foregoing.
Her paper's title: "The Rugrat Race."
For parents – like me – who may be looking for a way out of the race, there is one way to exit: move to Canada. Colleges there do not experience hierarchy and hyper-competition the way we do in the States. And, Ramey found, Canadian parents have not increased their child-care time the way American mom and dads have.
For those inclined to move north, here's yet another reason.
Can we afford the consumer economy? Marketplace explores how we consume, what we get from it, what it costs and whether we can keep it up.