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The middle class? Not what it used to be

Mitchell Hartman Feb 29, 2012

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.

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