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Issue Date:  July 1, 2005

What 'crisis' of the middle class?


I’ve never been a numbers guy or had a great interest in finance. I pay little attention to the Dow Jones Industrial Average and don’t give much thought to the leading economic indicators. I took microeconomics in college a decade ago and passed, but just barely. So, it took some effort recently when I spent several evenings tuning in to cable television’s growing lineup of financial news and talk shows.

I was watching because I wanted to see how real Wall Street insiders assess the current U.S. economy. What I saw and heard was striking. Each show features one token optimist who talks about “signs” of a rising U.S. economy. This person is eventually swamped, however, by a tide of despair from the other panelists who say the U.S. dollar is being beat silly by the euro; top publicly traded companies are returning lower-than-expected quarterly earnings; new job growth hasn’t reached anticipated levels; oil prices are still up; and everyone in America has yet to buy an SUV equipped with an in-cabin DVD system.

If all of that isn’t enough, the viewer -- if he or she doesn’t know any better -- is made to believe that times are particularly desperate for the great American middle class.

A crisis of the middle class? Do you really believe this?

The reality is, the American middle class has never been as financially well off as it is today. Again, I’m no economics scholar, but I do look out my window every once in a while. And what I see in middle-class suburbia is this: comfortable three- and four-bedroom homes with those late-model SUVs parked in the driveways; Wal-Marts and Targets streaming with shoppers loaded down like Everest expeditionists; kids and adults chatting on $50-a-month cell phones; a family of four plunking down $150 to be entertained at a ballgame.

Truth be told, the American middle class has significantly increased its standard of living in the last two decades and the middle class has more money than ever before. We work longer hours to gross more income. More often than not, in two-parent homes, both parents now work in an effort to beef up the family’s bank account. We buy more stuff because we have the money to buy that stuff. And we have become used to -- and even addicted to -- our middle-class wealth.

Think about it. Over the last 20 years, the average middle-class family has come to “need” two or three cars instead of one, 2,000-square-foot new builds instead of more modest housing, and has added computer, Internet and cable bills. These are choices we have made. We have more, so we spend more.

While an exact characterization of the middle class is hard to come by (geography plays a large role in earning and spending power), the U.S. Census Bureau confirms that the middle class is not exactly struggling. According to recent data, the middle of the middle class earns $40,000 to $95,000 annually, with the median household income at about $42,000 per year. In most locales, that is enough, when managed properly, to own a decent home, pay the bills and even save for your children’s education -- all the things that have traditionally defined America’s middle class.

The most current U.S. census data on household income is from 2003. In “current dollars” (or unadjusted dollars), the middle fifth of households earned $54,453 in 2003 and $25,718 in 1983. In Consumer Price Index adjusted dollars (accounting for inflation, etc.), the middle fifth earned $54,453 in 2003 and $45,061 in 1983. So, even in adjusted dollars, we’re more than $9,000 “better off” than 20 years ago.

Of course, wealth is relative. When we compare ourselves night after night to the highly televised Donald Trumps and Richard Bransons of the world, we middle-class folks tend to want for more and find ourselves complaining about our meager lot in life. Why can’t we, too, own a helicopter? Take a minute to compare ourselves to the preponderance of the Earth’s population, however, and you’ll find that middle-class Americans are monetarily richer than most anyone else on the globe.

So, where does all of this lead us? I don’t know about you, but it leads me to the fact that we’re missing the mark on the real economic question of our day: What responsibility do the upper class and the middle class have in helping America’s poverty-level citizens? While the upper class gets its fair share of the blame, the middle class is largely let off the hook in terms of expectations for pitching in against poverty.

Clearly, there is a segment of our society that is in crisis -- but it’s not the middle class. Unfortunately, the issues of poverty and the working poor garner barely a passing mention in our media’s discussion of the economy.

Brian Kantz is a Buffalo, N.Y.-based writer and editor. His column “The Newbie Dad” appears on and has been heard on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

National Catholic Reporter, July 1, 2005

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