Middle class finding it's harder to make ends meet
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Kate Brennan spent Wednesday night watching President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. When he mentioned the middle class, she knew he was talking about her.
Life at Mrs. Brennan's Swissvale home became a bit easier in the last month when she quit one of her three jobs. The budget for her family, which includes three children, became tighter, however.
Pinched budgets are nothing new to the nation's middle class. In recent years, wages have not kept pace with inflation, falling home prices have cut into the value of the largest asset owned by members of the middle class, and who knows what gas prices will do next.
"People are making hard choices out there," said Jenn Jannon, the regional director of Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Working America has people canvassing neighborhoods every night. In many of suburbs, from the Dormonts to the McCandlesses, they are hearing the same stories.
"Sometimes we're in affluent neighborhoods, sometimes in more traditional working class neighborhoods and they are all telling us the same thing: It's harder to make ends meet," Ms. Jannon said.
The choices are sometimes truly difficult ones, such as putting gas in the car or buying groceries for the kids. But even having to tighten the belt by pulling a child out of ballet or skipping hockey this season is agonizing for parents.
"Some people are talking about having to defer college," said Ms. Jannon, 29. "People my age are moving back in with their parents and are deferring their adult lives."
In his speech last week, Mr. Obama called for helping the middle class by doubling the child-care tax credit, providing tax credits for workers who save for retirement, reforming health care and increasing tax credits and Pell grants for college.
But who is in the middle class?
From a strictly economic standpoint, Heather Boushey, an economist with the Center for American Progress, defines middle class by annual income, ranging from $35,000 to $110,000.
Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., offers a more sociological definition. She said the middle class should be defined by a set of aspirations: being able to buy a home in a safe neighborhood with good schools; being able to set money aside for retirement, the children's college education and a modest summer vacation; and having access to medical care.
"In my mind, there's sort of this middle-class basket," Ms. Shierholz said.
The items in that basket are eroding, she said, as health care and college tuition rise out of the reach of middle-class families. Unlike the wealthy who definitely will obtain those goals or the poor who don't expect to be able to afford a summer vacation or college, the middle class is still striving in hopes of getting there.
Harry Moroz, a research associate at the Drum Major Institute, a New York public policy group, defines middle class by income as well as access to services and items that did not necessarily define it even 60 years ago. He also expands the middle class upward, because even the people in upper percentiles are feeling the pinch of the economic downturn.
The middle class, by his definition, has access to higher education, health care, child care, quality pre-kindergarten programs and housing in a safe and stable neighborhood.
He said a single person used to need about $30,000 annually to be in the middle class, but now that amount is not enough to ensure access to health care.
And young people who go through post-secondary education -- college, community college or technical training -- to remain in the middle class, start out with a pile of loans that jeopardize that status.
Meanwhile, wages are stagnant or even declining for the middle class.
"Now as things are becoming more expensive, those things that we've come to expect as givens are becoming farther and farther out of reach," Mr. Moroz said.
In addition, much of the middle class seems to be deferring sleep.
In a study on the work-family conflict released last week by the Center for American Progress, Ms. Boushey wrote that in the 1970s, fathers were able to support their families in the middle class on their income alone. Now it takes two incomes.
"Women whose mothers had worked only intermittently and part time now find themselves doing laundry at 10 p.m., and then waking up at 5 a.m. to make breakfast and lunches, get the older kids off to school and babies to child care, only to rush to jobs where they could be fired for being a few minutes late -- and then they rush back to child care, where they are charged $1 for each minute they are late," Ms. Boushey wrote.
Even with all that rushing around, the middle class is mostly forgotten by the politicians and academics.
"We never talk about day-to-day working families," Ms. Boushey said.
Most policy studies are about helping the poor reach the middle class.
Few researchers or elected officials are looking at the stresses inherent in staying in the middle class. That might change now that Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have formed the Middle Class Task Force, but it remains to be seen how much staying power the effort has.
One common stress for the middle class is that couples often wind up working opposite shifts as Mrs. Brennan and her husband, Dan, did for a time.
Mr. Brennan, a technical sergeant in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, was working 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., then sleeping until the children got home from school while his wife worked days.
Now he is out of the house before 6 a.m. but more tired when the children are home in the evenings.
Mrs. Brennan is able to be home more now, but the money is going to be tighter.
In the Center for American Progress report, Ms. Boushey wrote, "If one had to choose a single word to describe life in the middle, it might well be 'exhausted.' "
Eric Randolph knows that's true.
Mr. Randolph, 36, of Greenfield, who teaches Tai Chi, is up before 6 a.m. every day and says "you don't want to talk about" when he gets to bed at night. When pressed, he admits that's around midnight.
He and his wife, Jamie, who works for Jewish Family and Children's Services, spend days working around their 3-year-old daughter Reese's therapy schedule. Their evenings are spent on play therapy with Reese, who suffered a brain injury during birth.
Both Mrs. Randolph and Mrs. Brennan talk about their homes not being as clean as they would like. With all the time spent working, something's got to give.
"If it comes down to doing the laundry or helping Reese meet her goals, it's really no choice," Mrs. Randolph said.
"We're pretty stressed, no doubt about it," said Mr. Randolph, "but we handle it well."
First Published January 31, 2010 12:11 am