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Economic Inequality is Squeezing the Middle Class

May 21, 2008

Nan Mooney

What am I doing wrong?

In writing Not Keeping Up With Our Parents, I heard this question over and over again. It was the same question I’d been asking myself. I was a successful freelance writer, working on my third book. I typically held down one to two additional jobs — at the time I taught writing and worked as a receptionist at a yoga studio. I was single and relatively unencumbered. But I could barely manage to pay the rent for my shared apartment in Harlem each month. The prospect of having a child or moving to a smaller, more manageable city — surely not unreasonable expectations — both seemed like financial pie in the sky. I’d done everything I was supposed to do. I’d gone to college, worked hard, spent sensibly. So why couldn’t I afford any of the trappings of that middle class lifestyle I was supposed to embody?

The prospect of having a child or moving to a smaller, more manageable city — surely not unreasonable expectations — both seemed like financial pie in the sky.

In the ensuing months, I would interview over one hundred college-educated, middle class professionals like myself. They came from all over the country, single and in families, fresh out of college or contemplating retirement. I heard more stories than I could ever include in one book. All were unique, yet again and again they chimed the same themes: fear, confusion, the overwhelming sense of financial quicksand.

As I researched further, I discovered that the decline of the professional middle class was due to something far more pervasive than just individuals harboring too high expectations and poor money management skills.

Consider these statistics: College tuitions have gone up 35 percent in the past five years. The average college graduate today carries close to $20,000 in student loan debt. For those who also attend graduate school, the average debt rises to $46,000.

In the late 80s, 56 percent of major corporations still believed that “employees who are loyal to the company and further its business goals deserve an assurance of continued employment.” By the late 90s, that number dropped to just 6 percent.

Health care premiums have increased at five times the rate of inflation since 2000. 46.6 million Americans lack health insurance, almost twice as many as in 1980.

Between 1992 and 2005 CEO pay — including wages, bonuses and stock options — rose a staggering 186 percent, while the average worker experienced an income gain of just 7 percent.

The United States is one of only two industrialized countries in the world that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave to its citizens.

The United States is one of only two industrialized countries in the world that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave to its citizens. In an international survey compiled by the Project on Global Working Families, out of over 168 countries studied, 96 guarantee paid annual leave, 45 also guarantee some form of paid paternal leave for fathers, and 37 mandate paid leave specifically designated for caring for sick children. The U.S. is not among them.

The net worth of black and Latino college graduates is similar to the net worth of white high school graduates.

In 1949, mortgages were equal to 19.7 percent of disposable income; in 2000, they had risen to 66 percent; in 2005, they reached 96 percent of disposable income.

The wealthiest 400 tax payers in the country now pay the same percentage of their earnings in income, Social Security and Medicare taxes as families earning $50,000 to $75,000 a year, those at the heart of the middle class.

2005 was the first year since the Great Depression in which Americans spent more than they earned.

Today, two years after I set out to write Not Keeping Up With Our Parents, things are looking — if anything — worse. The housing bubble has officially burst and the country has tumbled into a recession (whether or not you want to actually call it that), which will lead to job losses and require financial tightening within both working class and middle class families that no longer have any notches left on the belt.

Today…things are looking — if anything — worse.

My own circumstances have changed as well. I’m the single mother to a magnificent baby boy. Having him is hands down the best decision I’ve ever made, but I’ve had to move back in with my parents in order to afford it. The thought of someday having enough money that we can live on our own, afford housing, transportation, health insurance child care — seems about as likely as meeting a leprechaun on the street. I don’t mind admitting that, like so many of those I interviewed, I’m scared.

In this election year these economic, social and family issues should be front and center in all our minds. It isn’t that we’ve missed some financial silver bullet everyone else has discovered. The economic inequality that has gripped our country since the 1980s is exerting extreme pressure on everyone from the middle class on down. It’s time for social policies and a social agenda that address the problems haunting the majority of this country. So vote, speak out, get mad and get active.

We really have no choice but change.

THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON BEACON BROADSIDE.

Nan Mooney is the author of Not Keeping Up With Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class. Mooney is also the author of I Can’t Believe She Did That: Why Women Betray Other Women at Work and My Racing Heart: The Passionate World of Thoroughbreds and the Track. Mooney’s website is www.nanmooney.com. Mooney appeared Monday on NPR’s OnPoint and has been interviewed on Salon.com.

Copyright 2008 Nan Mooney

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