What's happened to the middle class?

The American dream

Jeremy Hobson: The Federal Reserve kicks off a meeting today in Washington, and we're in for another debate over
which is a bigger concern for the U.S. economy -- inflation, or unemployment.

The Fed is expected to choose unemployment -- and announce it's shifting some of its investments in order to bring down interest rates on things like mortgages and car loans. That's supposed to get the middle class borrowing and spending again.

Well it's the future of the middle class
that concerns Don Peck. He's a writer for the Atlantic, and he's got a big story in the September issue called: "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?" Don Peck joins us now. Good morning.

Don Peck: Good morning.

Hobson: How do you define the middle class, first of all?

Peck: Well I mean, I think that many college graduates today define themselves as middle class and are very worried. They should be, because of the economic weakness we're seeing. But really what I was looking at was what I call the "non-professional middle class" -- people with a high school diploma, but not a college degree. These are the people that are really struggling in the U.S. today.

Hobson: What is the main cause of it?

Peck: You know, even before the recession, this was a group that was under siege because of the technological substitution of labor and because of global offshoring. And what we saw in this recession is the acceleration of both of those trends: companies pulled forward offshoring decisions, restructuring decisions that otherwise would have taken years. And high school graduates have really suffered as a result.

Hobson: I think a lot of people think that in order to succeed in the future economy, you'll have to have a college degree. But you write that that might not actually be the case for everyone.

Peck: I think we should support college education for anyone who wants it and try to widen it. But the fact is that only 30 percent of American adults -- even young adults -- have a college degree, and that number has been increasing extremely slowly. So I don't think that college education can be the entire answer to the woes of the middle class. I think we need to find ways to build pathways into the middle class for people who finish high school but aren't necessarily cut out for college.

Hobson: Do you think that there's some view from the sort of Donna Reed, 1950s, that a family is supposed to be able to have a big house in the suburbs and a car and maybe take a vacation every once in a while, but that in fact, in the future or even now, that's not the middle class anymore -- that's just the rich?

Peck: Well, I think it would be a shame if that were the case. We can quibble about house sizes and the like; I think houses probably got a little too big for a while. But I think an important part of the American idea is a broad middle class -- a prosperous, upwardly mobile middle class. And my worry is that absent, aggressive and really wide-ranging action to rebuild our middle class over time, we could be left with more of a two-tier society, and I think that would be unfortunate and not a country that many Americans would really want to live in.

Hobson: Don Peck of the The Atlantic. His new book is "Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It." Don Peck, thanks so much.

Peck: Thank you, it's my pleasure.

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