Middle Class Jitters

Publication: The Washington Post

Author: Robert J. Samuelson

05/22/2008 - We middle-class Americans are in a funk. "The overarching economic narrative of the 2008 campaign is the idea that life for the middle class has grown more difficult," writes Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center, which recently published a massive report on middle-class anxieties. By its survey, more than half of Americans believe they either have not moved ahead in the past five years (25 percent) or have fallen behind (31 percent). Pew pronounces this "the most downbeat short-term assessment of personal progress in nearly half a century."

It's not that Americans have lost their optimism. About two-thirds say they have higher living standards than their parents did at the same age, and by a ratio of two to one they expect their children to live better than they do. But there's an underlying disenchantment that seems to predate today's higher oil prices, falling home values and declining employment.

"When my college-educated, gainfully employed thirty-something friends and I get together, we talk about money," writes Nan Mooney in her new book, "(Not) Keeping Up With Our Parents." "We talk about our inadequate health insurance and whether we can afford it, about how to juggle credit card payments and crushing student loans. . . . This wasn't the life I'd expected."

Part of the deceptive sense of falling behind reflects the elastic nature of being middle class. According to Pew, 70 percent of households now have two or more cars, and a similar share has satellite or cable TV; 66 percent have high-speed Internet; 42 percent already have flat-panel TVs. The cost of entry into the middle class keeps rising. More students go to college and graduate school, so more have debt. Health care is expensive in part because modern medicine can do so much. Someone has to pay. One in 10 households now has a vacation home.

Read the full article Middle Class Jitters on the Washington Post's Web site.

Read the related report Inside the Middle Class: Bad Times Hit the Good Life on the Pew Research Center Web site.

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