Thursday, February 24, 2011

Middle Class As Underclass

I remember reading Lou Dobbs' book, The War on the Middle Class, and feeling as though what I had been noticing, sensing and observing for so long was finally being named. Over the past three decades, the gap between rich and poor has grown steadily. But as the very rich have become richer, it is not just the poor who have grown poorer. The layer of people who emerged with new opportunities during the Industrial Revolution and continued to thrive "until the music stopped," beginning in the Reagan era, "the middle class," have lost standing over the past three decades and have now emerged as an underclass.

When I was a kid, plenty of my peers defined success as "having more than their parents had." While that might have been possible for past generations, for those who are parents themselves today, it is far more difficult to accomplish. According to an article on, in 1988, the average American tax payer had income of $33,400, adjusted for inflation. In 2008, the average income was still just $33,000 according to data from the IRS.

On the other hand, the richest 1% of Americans, those making $380,000 or more, have experienced a 33% growth in income over the last 20 years. The gap between the richest and everyone has grown, while the middle class, trapped with stagnant income in the face of rising costs of living, has experienced a decrease in their standard of living.

Years back a friend of mine from Europe commented that the United States was well on its way to becoming a 3rd world country, while what used to be known as 3rd world countries were gaining new wealth thanks to globalization. As American workers watched their jobs move overseas, with nothing to fall back on, workers in India, China and other 3rd world countries found themselves with new opportunities. Corporations took advantage of cheaper labor in other countries to cut costs and increase profits, and found new markets in the countries they were "developing" their new workforce in.

The article also notes that with the decline of unions and other labor protections, American workers had no voice and no power. Add to that anti-regulation that loosened rules governing banks in the 1980's, barriers between commercial and investment banks dissolving during the Clinton era, the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which weakened oversight of complex securities and the Bush era tax cuts that benefited the most wealthy, and the pathways for the wealthy to become "the ruling class" broadened and deepened.

I find it noteworthy that 65% of school-aged kids are going to school hungry, and teachers are now spending on average $25/week of their own money to help feed their students so they can concentrate in class. Reasons for this trend include chaotic households, families that just cannot afford food, and families with no food in the house for breakfast. When I learned about this trend, it seemed more third world country news than what one might expect for kids in the US.
Yet this trend is happening here on our home territory, and perhaps in a kitchen near you.

As kids turn 16, instead of being welcomed for retail sales jobs or supermarket cashier jobs, they struggle to find the kinds of opportunities their parents looked forward to at the same age. Today, immigrants from other countries and older workers who need to work into their retirement years have taken the jobs that were once available to high school students. More and more teens scramble for unpaid internships to gain work experience and valuable credentials for their resume to improve their odds for paid employment in the years ahead.

It is far more common for twentysomethings to still live at home with their parents as they try to stake out an economic foothold in the world. Those who have fled the nest often share apartments with multiple roommates to contain costs. Some young families wonder if they will ever be able to own their own home, once a staple of the "American dream."

How we can regain the power to help change the world for the better is a question well worth pondering both on our own and in communities of like-minded others. It will take gatherings of people face to face to generate the energy for a true uprising and revolt. Watching this happen in the Middle East is very telling. Will Americans be able to rise up together and create a new revolution? Time will tell. But something revolutionary is needed.

Copyright 2011 Linda Marks