7 Stressors Sapping the Middle Class

Why millions of Americans feel as if they’re sitting out the economic recovery.

By SHARE

We all know about keeping up with the Joneses. Now, the Great Recession and the jobless recovery have introduced a new socioeconomic phenomenon: slip-sliding with the Smiths.

Working harder for less is the new normal—for those lucky enough to have a job. Millions of families are giving up comforts they long took for granted, such as restaurant meals, new clothes, vacations, spacious cars, home improvements, and cable television. College funds and retirement savings have taken a hit, and some families have been forced to downsize their homes or, worse, submit to foreclosure. Little wonder that record numbers of Americans tell pollsters it's getting harder to get ahead and that they worry their kids' standard of living may fall rather than rise.

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The obvious culprit is a terrible job market that has left 15 million Americans out of work and millions more working less than they would like. But several economic trends have been stressing the American middle class for a decade or more, and the recession intensified those pressures as well. Healthcare and college costs, for example, have been rising unabated. Seniors who are living longer require more late-in-life care, with the costs often borne by their middle-aged kids. A turbulent economy, meanwhile, has hammered away at incomes, job security, and net worth—and even led the White House to create a "middle-class task force" that gives the problem an official hue: "It is harder to attain a middle-class lifestyle now than it was in the recent past," declared a recent task-force report.

Politicians want to help, with dozens of proposals in Washington and state capitals to create jobs, subsidize living costs, and prove that elected officials care. But most governments are running out of money, and many of the political proposals are hollow, vote-seeking gestures. Americans, meanwhile, are relying more on themselves by cutting spending, saving more, changing their lifestyles, and re-evaluating their careers. As a halting economic recovery evolves, here are seven stressors that middle-class Americans need to address in order to maintain their standard of living:

Falling income. The pinch that many families feel comes from incomes that have fallen while other unavoidable costs have continued to go up. From 2000 to 2008, median household income after inflation was basically unchanged, the weakest performance since at least the end of World War II. And that was mostly before the recession. Economists estimate that once additional data are tallied, they will show that median real income fell by 5 to 7 percent during the recession. That's a huge drop that seems unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon, since a weak job market means that even those who have jobs are far less likely to get raises. And many people have absorbed pay cuts or taken new jobs that pay a lot less than they used to earn.

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A sudden loss of income can be devastating for those with a lot of debt and little savings, which unfortunately includes far too many Americans. Even so, people are adjusting. There's been a stutter-step increase in the savings rate, which, if it lasts, will help pad rainy-day funds. Shoppers are buying fewer extravagances and more discount merchandise. And after a 20-year borrowing binge, Americans are paying off (or defaulting on) record amounts of debt. If those trends continue, the typical household may eventually lower costs enough to live comfortably on less income—and enjoy a few new perks if incomes begin to rise again.

Reduced savings/net worth. When incomes fall faster than expenses, the first impulse is often to make up the difference by borrowing. But banks and credit-card issuers have clamped down on lending, leaving many Americans no choice but to raid their savings to pay the bills. This has happened at the same time that home values have plunged. Many homeowners now have little or no home equity, and a topsy-turvy stock market has stabilized more than 25 percent below its peak values from 2007. The result is a net loss of about $12 trillion in Americans' net worth over the past three years, according to the Federal Reserve—about $102,000 per U.S. household.

A sharp housing rebound or a fresh stock market rally would help recover those losses, but neither seems especially likely. And stock-market gains tend to benefit the wealthy much more than the middle class anyway. So the majority of Americans will have to rebuild their net worth the old-fashioned way: by saving more, spending less, and living more frugally. The savings rate has in fact ticked up over the past year, but not by as much as some economists had expected. That's one sign that it may take a long time for consumers to adjust their behavior and get used to a new financial reality.

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High healthcare costs. The sob stories trotted out by advocates of healthcare reform ring true. Healthcare costs rose by 155 percent between 1990 and 2008, according to the White House's middle-class task force, while median household income rose by just 20 percent. That means medical costs take an increasing share of take-home pay for virtually every family. A separate study from 2009 found that 62 percent of all personal bankruptcies stemmed from medical problems that overwhelmed family finances. Even if Washington passes healthcare reform, rising medical costs seem likely to pressure the family budget for years, forcing many to simply spend less on other things.

Child-care/elder-care expenses. Many families have maintained their standard of living because both parents work. Between 1990 and 2008, for example, hours worked by both parents in a typical middle-income family increased 5 percent; in a middle-income single-parent family, hours worked spiked by 13.4 percent. That leaves less time for taking care of kids, aging parents, and anything else that needs attention—and the added costs of paying somebody else to do it. Data from the recession may show that child- and elder-care costs have eased as more people find themselves involuntarily stuck at home. And as Americans simplify their lives, some moms and dads may decide that it makes sense for one parent to spend more time at home instead of working to pay for a bunch of stuff the family doesn't really need.

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College costs. A typical family with two kids should sock away about $4,200 per year to pay for college. That's a tall order. College costs have risen about 43 percent since 1990, nearly twice the rise in median income. And with state and federal education funds being axed, public universities are hiking tuition and fees. A budget crisis in California, for instance, has led to a 32 percent increase in tuition at marquee state schools like UCLA and Berkeley, with more increases likely. Private schools, meanwhile, are struggling with steep drops in their endowments thanks to the financial crisis and the housing bust, which trashed mortgage-based investments. The bottom line for many families is that they'll have to take out bigger college loans, with students working more to pay for their own education.

Housing costs. The cost of financing and maintaining a home soared by 56 percent between 1990 and 2008, thanks to the housing bubble that's now deflating. Many families that bought a home near the peak of the market—say, between 2005 and 2007—are stuck with property that's declining in value and in some cases worth less than the mortgage. That will continue to fuel foreclosures and the stress of making huge housing payments that the family income can barely cover. But the housing bust is helping bring prices back down to manageable levels for many families, one break for those who escape the recession with their household finances more or less intact.

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False expectations. For the past 40 or 50 years, Americans have lived by a series of unofficial tenets: A good education guarantees a good job, hard work will bring prosperity, and 40 years of 40-hour-a-week work earns a comfortable retirement. Then, maybe; now, not so much. Workers who believe that somebody owes them a comfortable life just because they try hard are risking bitter disappointment in a Darwinian economy, where there are likely to be more losers and fewer winners than we're used to. The winners will be those who learn how to adapt, expect nobody to give them anything, and are prepared to work harder in the future than they did in the past. That's how it was in America before anybody ever heard of the middle class, and it may be that way for a while again. The real middle class—the true bedrock of the nation—will be able to handle it.