ó Moneyís tight for Curtis Griesel, mostly because
of the costs of health care and college tuition, but he
still considers himself middle class.
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.
Griesel, itís not getting harder to be middle class,
itís getting harder to meet middle class expectations.
think our cultural expectations have elevated, and I
think itís because of our consumer culture," he
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
really tough to send a kid to college right now, and itís
really tough to afford anything medically related,"
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.
never think of myself as being worse off than my
parents," Griesel said. "I think of myself as
making different choices."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
any music I can think of, I can dial up on my phone, and
have it play through the speakers in my house,"
air conditioners, washing machines and refrigerators are
cheaper today than 40 years ago adjusted for inflation,
and more energy efficient.
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."
of this is persuasive to Nan Madden, director of the
Minnesota Budget Project.
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.
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.
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."
Johnston, an economic historian who teaches at the
College of St. Benedict and St. Johnís University,
said itís difficult to compare standards of living
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.
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.
STORY CAN END HERE)
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.
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
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.
is comfortable," said Peters, who quit working
after 15 years in banking to stay home with his
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.
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