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The US middle class perseveres despite economic perils

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

December 26, 2016


MINNEAPOLIS ó Moneyís tight for Curtis Griesel, mostly because of the costs of health care and college tuition, but he still considers himself middle class.

Household income for Griesel, his wife and their three teenage sons is in the ballpark of the metro area median. They live in a Bloomington home built in 1955, donít own a lot of expensive things, can afford to pay their bills, travel and save a little money.

To Griesel, itís not getting harder to be middle class, itís getting harder to meet middle class expectations.

"I think our cultural expectations have elevated, and I think itís because of our consumer culture," he said.

Income for Americans in the middle rose at a modest but steady rate over the past 40 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And prices for consumer goods have dropped while quality has improved.

That economic reality contrasts with perceptions that the middle class has stagnated since the 1970s. Those perceptions have been shaped in part by politicians but also by the fact that the rich have fared even better, with bigger income gains.

Some economists try to cut through the political din to point this out, but itís been a futile effort. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe government does too little to help the middle class, and politicians are eager to agree. Hillary Clinton wanted to make college tuition free for the middle class. President-elect Donald Trump said he will cut their taxes by 35 percent.

"There is a lot of bipartisan consensus about the fiction that the middle class is deteriorating," said Scott Winship, a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity in Austin, Texas. "The actual problems in the world, including poverty and limited upward mobility from the bottom, tend to get ignored as a consequence."

Griesel works as an office manager in Bloomington, and points out that middle-income families face challenges. New housing in Bloomington, he said, is geared toward the upper class, and it would be difficult for his family to buy their home today.

"Itís really tough to send a kid to college right now, and itís really tough to afford anything medically related," he said.

His parents made more money than he does, but they were children of the Great Depression and were laser-focused on income and possessions. They were unusually successful, he said, and hardly the norm.

"I never think of myself as being worse off than my parents," Griesel said. "I think of myself as making different choices."

The data that best bolster the claim of a disappearing middle class comes from the Census Bureau, and shows that the typical male worker earned lower wages in 2014 than he did in 1973.

Similar data is the basis for a large, thorough and much-cited Pew Research Center analysis showing the middle class shrank by nearly a fifth between 1971 and 2015.

Nobody disputes that the recession and slow recovery have hurt middle-class incomes in the past 15 years. But when it comes to the longer-term story, the CBO and economists like Terry Fitzgerald at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis have arrived at a different conclusion: Middle class prosperity is gradually rising.

The CBO reported that after-tax income for households that are not in either the top or bottom 20 percent of Americans rose 41 percent from 1979 to 2013, taking into account the rise of health insurance as a form of compensation, more government payments to people, the smaller size of the typical household, and the lower federal taxes that middle-income Americans pay.

The census figures take none of those factors into account, and several economists argue the census also uses the wrong inflation calculator, an arcane dispute that has a large effect on the numbers.

"For most people, on average, itís getting better," Fitzgerald said, though he adds, "The lives that individual people lead arenít always correlated with the broader trends."

And the rise of quality in consumer goods and services has been a hidden boost. Health care is more expensive than it was in the 1970s but is of much higher quality. Several types of cancer are no longer a death sentence, and older people get hip replacements as a matter of routine.

Electronics are another example. In 1975, an AM/FM stereo receiver at Radio Shack ó no speakers, record player or records ó was priced at $460, or $1,615 in todayís dollars.

Now a brand-new iPhone 7 ó which can launch a rocket, manage a bank account, shoot video and play much of the music thatís ever been recorded ó costs $700.

"Almost any music I can think of, I can dial up on my phone, and have it play through the speakers in my house," Fitzgerald said.

Televisions, air conditioners, washing machines and refrigerators are cheaper today than 40 years ago adjusted for inflation, and more energy efficient.

"Itís definitely not the case that the middle class has deteriorated," Winship said. "Weíre essentially the richest middle class in global history, give or take a few countries."

None of this is persuasive to Nan Madden, director of the Minnesota Budget Project.

Median-income Minnesotans are earning less in wages than in 2000, and even when the CBO analysis is taken into account, middle-class families have new struggles their grandparents didnít, notably the costs of health care, child care and college education.

"Weíve done well as a global economy at bringing down the costs of durable consumer goods, but housing, medical care and education are growing much faster," Madden said.

The runaway costs of child care and college education force middle-class families to forgo opportunities and prevent poor families from rising to the middle, she said. "Back in the í50s and í60s, a college education wasnít required to have a job that could support a family," Madden said. "Now it is."

Louis Johnston, an economic historian who teaches at the College of St. Benedict and St. Johnís University, said itís difficult to compare standards of living across eras.

American history has been dominated by long periods of income inequality, he said, broken by occasional bouts of rising equality, usually during wars or recessions. The years after World War II were one of those periods, and the American middle class benefited disproportionately for a couple of decades.

That era still dominates in the public imagination, Johnston said, even though it was an aberration. "We get kind of messed up when we think of the postwar period as the norm," he said.

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Matt Peters, who now lives in New York, grew up in Park Rapids, Minn. He and his wife, who have four children, have more money than his parents had when he was growing up, but they also have more stress. Peters, like many of his peers, traded a simple childhood for a complicated adulthood with more money.

"When I grew up, we lived off of hand-me-downs from my cousins and siblings," Peters said. "Now itís like everybody needs to have new everything, iPads for every kid."

Middle-class families may have money and possessions, he said, but they have no time. Both parents are working, theyíre caught in a trap of overconsumption and credit-card debt, and live in fear of getting laid off.

"Nobody is comfortable," said Peters, who quit working after 15 years in banking to stay home with his children.

He looks back fondly on his own childhood in Park Rapids, playing in the woods all day, even though he never had the newest Atari. His father was a pipe-fitter and his mom stayed home when he was young. That life appeals to him so much that he and his wife are trying to figure out a way to move back to Minnesota. Right now he feels squeezed and so do his friends.

"Some of it might be a lack of control. They donít feel like their desires and wishes and ideals are being met," Peters said. "Thereís no purpose, no one to trust and no where to go, but you have to keep that rat wheel turning."