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The middle class? Not what it used to be

The middle class in the United States isn't what it used to be. A big dividing line? Education.

Jeremy Hobson: So do you consider yourself middle class? Well, the definition of that term is what we'll explore now as we launch our new Wealth and Poverty Desk.

It used to be middle class meant "doing well" -- realizing the American Dream. Well, as Mitchell Hartman reports, it's more complicated now.


Mitchell Hartman: A lot of Americans think of themselves as middle class. My family does. We arrived more than a century ago in Philadelphia with the proverbial "clothes on our backs," delivered bread and sewed men’s suits. A couple generations later, we were teachers, accountants and cardiologists.

I dialed up my first cousin, Marcy Tanter. She teaches English at a state college near Fort Worth, Texas.

Hartman: Are you middle class?

Marcy Tanter: Yes, and I think for the most part our family is. Pretty much everybody has a college education, everybody has jobs. We travel. We have computers and iPads and iPods and cars.

We’re lucky to be in the upper-middle-class sweet spot, with incomes in the top 25 percent. We’ll be able to help our kids -- with SAT classes, college costs or a first home.

Some of our relatives haven’t made out as well. They didn’t go to college, and have worked in real estate, construction, waitressing, selling auto parts. In the Great Recession, a few have lost homes or gone bankrupt.

Welcome to America’s struggling middle, says University of Wisconsin economist Timothy Smeeding. It’s people making around the median income: $50,000 a year.

Timothy Smeeding: And this group is still middle class. But 10 years ago, they were behind the white picket fence, they had a nice house and steady jobs, and their kids would do better than they would. And now they’re finding a lot of that crumbling.

Smeeding says with the increased computerization of manufacturing and secretarial work, people with less education have limited long-term prospects.

Smeeding: What’s left to them are personal services: cashiers, sales clerks, lawns, food preparation. Those jobs don’t pay a lot of money, so the traditional avenues to the middle class are gone. At the same time, people with higher education, particularly post-graduate degrees, are doing really well.

So, what’s the middle class? Well, there isn’t just one. There are two, and they’re pulling apart. Get higher education or technical training, chances are you’ll do pretty well. Miss out on post-high-school education, end up working jobs that require few advanced skills, and you could find your family squeezed out of the middle class, altogether.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.


Marketplace and the Public Insight Network wants to know about your neighborhood for a special photo project. Tell us about what issues matter to you and your community -- and don’t forget to submit a photo. Submit here.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.
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I agree with your point of the ifs. People think that if they just strive and get a better education that they will automatically get a better job them some. Although I think that people need to want to get a high paying job. People need to have a drive to get it and not just rely on their level of education. Working hard and really wanting it is what will get the people their jobs they want. Completely agree with your point that people cannot just relied on their education level.

The cost for college has increased at a huge amount, and at our current econimic times finding a job out of college can be rather tricky. I know people that have been in the work force for decades, both with college degrees, one with a masters. Both of them make very poor money for the amount of education they have earned. I don't think college is the be all win all, it was 30 years ago, college degree allowed you to make more money, now days, it doesn't apply as much. A college degree can get you a job working at a Starbucks as a "Barista". Not great money for 4 years of your time. I also know some people that have gone the other way, graduated college, got a job lined up before their official graduation and have been working full time for $70,000 a year. College does make a difference, and I believe everyone should have the option of going to college, but really, in our current economy, I don't believe it gives you instant acception to the middle class.

People can argue all they want about education and its benifits/drawbacks but the fact of the matter is that by pushing yourself and getting the best education you can based on financial and mental abilities, you improve your chances for a better future. True, you may not be entitled to the high paying, career driven job you could have gotten 20 years ago, but its will always be better than the alternative. As stated above, those members of his family that did not recieve a college education and beyond are having a much harder time in life than those that did. The rules that govern society have not changed, only the obstacles placed in the way have.

I find it almost depressing that simple intelligence and determination are not enough to make a living anymore. What has the world come to when we are able to walk by people living on the streets without so much as a thought of consideration or empathy? Especially the way schools are set-up these days, I find myself struggling to even glance at "good colleges" for fear of being let down. Even worst, in schools we learn about the "good ol' days" when all one needed to make it in life was a strong attitude, a good work ethic, and a top hat. It's all too sad to know that those traits are not enough. And even worse for students to be told that they may not make it very far. So much for you can do whatever you set your mind to.

Does the author not know about the unemployment rate? Has he not heard the cost of college has skyrocketed? Sure - get an advanced degree right now - you'll be fine. IF you find a job and IF you have no school loans.
Do you think there are no jobs in between a college professor and lawn maintenance? Vast numbers of people make in the $35,000. range and are getting squeezed by higher prices on EVERYTHING from clothes to peanut butter. Insurance & medical costs are shifted to them, yet their wages have been stagnant for 20 years. That's the real problem. All these people who simply give advice "Go to college" miss the point, several points, actually. No economy can employ nothing but college graduates. The country needs people to serve food, be cashiers, work in call centers and warehouses. The corporations that employ those people simply refuse to part with a few more pennies -in their workers' paychecks.

Today I joined the ranks of those without health insurance. I let my plan with Anthem lapse because I simply can't afford the extra $200 per month any more and make ends meet.

I'm the owner/manufacterer and designer of a small brand of jewelry and accessories for Ocean Lovers. I'm a surfer and my connection to the ocean drives my passion and creativity in my business. When I started my company nine years ago (March 15th), it grew rapidly and I felt like I was building something big. I was "building my empire"! Then the recession hit. Many of my retailers closed their doors, I lost a huge amount of income and receivables. Today, even though my business has growing again at about 20% annually, the expenses have gotten so high, everything has gotten so expensive, that no matter how fast I spin my little hamster wheel, it seems like I am never able to catch up and my income has hovered at about 18K for the past four years. I'm grateful for every single customer who walks in the door of my retail store or shops my website. I hope my business will grow enough to have a stab at some kind of secure retirement, but I'm ever more doubtful that is an option.

It's like this for much of the creative class. I can't even tell you how many brilliant and extremely talented creatives (photographers, film makers, designers and more) are struggling just like this. Sometimes it feels like we are sinking back into the impoverished artist class of times past. The economy and shrinking budgets combined with the race-to-the-bottom tactics like crowdsourcing have taken away from the value and dignity of these artists. I'm actually one of the lucky ones...

I work hard. I contribute. I give back. I'm passionate about what I do. I am "living the dream". But the dream's foundation is crumbling. I won't stop spinning that hamster wheel, even if I never get anywhere than where I am today. But gosh, it's so frustrating to see the creative class sink into poverty.

Okay, rant over. Peace. Out.

I heard this segment and felt it gave the impression that having a degree might save you from economic struggle. My experience is that this is not necessarily true. Having a BS. in Chemistry, an MS. in Occupational Health and 24 years of experience at well established employers did not save me from a very de-stabilizing three years of looking for work. Along the way I've encountered many well educated but under or unemployed people. In my own field, I believe that jobs are going to younger people who cost less and salaries are dropping. A technical field can lead you to work in very specific areas and times and job requirements can change quite rapidly. Although having a technical background may certainly allow you to learn new skills, in this currently very tight job market, it's hard have that opportunity when there may well be people who appear to be better match job requirements. When you add to all this the current cost of education it doesn't paint a very rosy picture, even for those with advanced degrees.

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