No longer does being middle class mean getting ahead. It now means just not falling too far behind.
That's according to the 16th quarterly Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll released last week. Here, 54% of those surveyed defined the middle class as those who could still keep up with bills, not get too buried in debt, and not lose their jobs.
Once basic economic goals--such as paying for a child's college education, retiring comfortably, or even just surviving a health care emergency -- are only realistic for the upper class, according to 40% of those surveyed.
Annual vacations, regular pay increases, quality healthcare, and even just basic job security -- these things are now only manageable for the upper class, about one-third of those surveyed reported.
"People are not really asking the Ronald Reagan question anymore--Are you better off than you were for years ago?--because they don't expect to be," said Ronald Brownstein, editorial director for National Journal, in a telephone interview. "Not falling through the floor is the new getting ahead."
If you really want to know how the economy is doing, don't ask an economist. Ask someone who still aspires to be in the middle class. "Over the last four years, Americans" views in this poll have been consistently right about the economy," said Allstate CEO Thomas J. Wilson in a press release "Today, they are sounding the alarm bell that the economy is not on track for sustainable growth."
People surveyed may know more about the economy because they bear the brunt of it. Here's what a few of them said:
"The middle class has become a treading-water position. …. Opportunities have been stifled in the past 20 or 30 years." -- Loren Cowdery, a graduate student who delivers pizzas in Bellingham, Wash.
"I feel sorry for my kids-they're just getting out of college-because they have nothing to look forward to. They're not going to have the ability in the near future to buy a home. There are thousands of people who are going to be stuck with their student loans." -- Tim Cooper, an equipment salesman who lives in the Chicago suburbs.
"Everything is going up, but wages are staying the same. By the time I retire, I hope I have Social Security, because other than that I've got nothing." -- Dale High, a 54-year-old trucker from Idaho.
The good news, though, is that almost everyone in America can still consider themselves middle class, especially now that they've lowered the bar.
Of those surveyed, 85% said they were at some level in the middle class -- 46% said they were truly in the middle, 26% said they were lower middle class, and 12% said they were upper middle class. Only 2% called themselves "upper class."
In a rare moment of optimism, those surveyed said they believe a typical middle-class family makes about $65,000 per year. Median household income, however, is just a little over $50,000, meaning half of all households make less than that.
If you want to know who is really in the middle class, put a few names from the Forbes rich list on one end of a chart, and names of some food stamp recipients on the other, and everyone in between is the middle class. You don't have to admit you're poor. You don't have to brag if you're rich.
Middle class people can't agree who they are, anyway, or who to blame for their decline.
A reader recently emailed me a 2010 from Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald-Leader. It depicted a disgruntled character in six panels saying. "A corporation laid me off. A corporation took my house. Corporate cash is corrupting democracy. A corporation denied my claim. I hate the government."
Indeed, most surveyed blamed the government for their declining economic plights. According to the survey, 64% believe Congress is making things worse for the middle class and 45% believe President Obama is making things worse.
They also blamed big business, but to a lesser extent: 54% said CEOs of major U.S. corporations are making things worse for the middle class, and 55% said major financial institutions are making things worse.
Only 29% believe the nation is headed in the "right direction," down from 41% just last November. So much for the big vote.
The middle class agrees one of its biggest problems is an economy that is conspiring against it -- whether it's because of the soulless forces of technology and globalization, or the more insidious powers of systemic corporate and government corruption. They bounce from one party to the next, looking for change, yet none comes.
"Our political allegiance revolves more around cultural values than economic interests," explained Brownstein.
Guns, gay rights, abortions--voters help decide stuff like that. Economic policy, meanwhile, is more heavily influenced by the companies that can afford the most powerful lobbies.
That's why America's middle class is mad as heck and they're just going to keep right on taking it.
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