Sunday, October 29, 2017

What Happened to Middle Class Stability?

America news and media is certainly not at a loss for discussions of economic insecurity - from declining upward mobility to ballooning health insurance costs to tax reform and/or "tax cuts for the rich" - the issue of class warfare has been running heavy through the American psyche lately. And, I'm not entirely sure what is getting better, what is getting worse, and what the true extent of the narrative is. But for those interested in exploring, a couple recent headlines caught my attention.

More than a decade and a half ago, investigative journalist and writer Barbara Erhrenreich spotlighted the struggles of America's working poor to make ends meet. The seminal and thought-provoking Nickled and Dimed explored the challenge of getting by on minimum wage, and Erhrenreich provided real world insight with her immersion in the struggle, working numerous entry-level jobs while living (barely) in hotels and low-rent apartments. That issue has been given an update with a somewhat surprising focus on similar and growing struggles among middle class American workers who are often college-educated with experience in careers, rather than just jobs.

Writer Jessica Bruder brings attention to "casualties of the Great Recession" in her new book-length investigation of the new breed of homeless people living in the cars or RVs while they criss-cross the country doing seasonal work for companies like during the holiday season. Bruder's work, Nomadland: Surving America in the Twenty-First Century, offers stories of a struggling segment of the population who are facing the prospect of never retiring as they simply hope to get by until their bodies simply wear out.

As far as human inventions go, retirement is shockingly recent, and proving fragile. A fringe idea until the 20th century — and one that outraged many — it took tenuous hold in the United States in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Today, only 17 percent of Americans imagine they will be able to afford to stop working someday.“Nomadland,” by Jessica Bruder, an important if frustrating new work influenced by such classics of immersion journalism as Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” looks at one strategy older workers have devised for “surviving America.” Tens of thousands have traded in their homes for “wheel estate.” They are “the Okies of the Great Recession”: grandparents living in school buses and vans seeking seasonal work cleaning toilets at campgrounds, picking blueberries in Kentucky, sometimes for wages, sometimes for just a parking spot — “not necessarily paved but hopefully level.”

Books about the rising "gig economy" have coincided with interesting discussions about the middle class and what that even means in America anymore. In my own town of Greenwood Village, CO, there is a debate about the prospect of "high density housing" and "urbanization" that is fueling an intense City Council election. In a place like GV, where the "average" home price is north of $1 million, the challenge for middle class earners to find housing is becoming truly strained. Of course, in a neighborhood where homes can reach $10+ million, the idea of middle class seems almost absurd. The Denver Post recently reported on the concept when it asked "Is $100,000 a middle class income in America?" Growing up in small town Illinois in the 1970s, I have a hard time talking about $100K as middle class and "middle class suburban" homes going for $1.5 million.

Who knows where this goes next?

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