Saturday, July 16, 2011

Middle Class Illusions

I've got to hand it to Bob Herbert. Today he was on in more ways than one. He wrote this piece for the NY Times and then he was on MSNBC's Morning Joe where he noted that it's harder and harder for Americans to 1) Be in the middle class; 2) Hang on to their place in the middle class; 3) Move into the middle class from the working class. Now, I don't know about you, but I find the topic of class divisions refreshing. I don't think it's discussed enough.

I was especially interested when Herbert brought up the fact that at one time, a middle class lifestyle could be obtained and maintained with one salary earned by a man with a college education or a good manufacturing job. (Credit where credit is due - Pat Buchanan was sitting there, too, agreeing with Herbert and reinforcing his position. His feminine alter ego Bay was nowhere to be seen. Thank goodness.)

The main point that Herbert was making was that the American middle class has been losing ground for quite a while and most of us haven't recognized it or let ourselves be aware of it. Where my dad, a forklift driver for (please forgive me) Monsanto who worked a lot of overtime - thank you, dad - was able to afford a nice home, nice cars, vacations, a swimming pool, etc. and my father-in-law, a Chicago public school teacher, supported six kids in a three bedroom ranch on the NW side, imagine now trying to pull that off. First of all, those jobs like my dad's just don't exist so much anymore. And I can tell you, a teacher's salary cannot support a family of five, never mind six.

One of the things Herbert pointed out was that the struggle to maintain middle classdom has been masked by a growing use of credit. Lord, yes. The other point he made was that when women went to work outside the home, in large numbers, their income helped mask the ground being lost by men in their buying power. That was true in my family, as well as in MathMan's. My mom went back to work when I was in the third grade (1974ish). MathMan's mom got a job outside the home in the early '80s. I suspect that one of the reasons our moms went to work was to stretch their husband's paychecks. I know for a fact that my mom went to work to help pay her McAlpin's and Shillito's bills. Those were the ones she trained us to retrieve from the mailbox before Dad got home. We dutifully hid them in her underwear drawer.

Identifying the problem doesn't fix the problem, but for about three minutes today, viewers of MSNBC were reminded that what they think is a comfy middle class life is fleeting and getting harder to hold on to all the time. With the increasing impact of rising fuel costs and all the associated things that will increase in cost, too, most of us who thought we were middle class will find our grip loosening even more to the point that many of us will slip into the vast pool of poor without ever being able to put the words to what is happening to us.

Originally posted June 10, 2008

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