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The Devastating Tragedy of our Vanishing Middle Class

By Herb Bowie

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Girls lying down in station wagon

You’re probably already familiar with much of the data and analysis concerning the decline of the American middle class. But let me remind you of some of the pertinent information, just in case you need a refresher.

  • 40% of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover an unexpected $400 expense. (source)

  • The combined wealth of the three richest Americans – Gates, Bezos and Buffett – is the same as the combined wealth of the 50% of Americans with the lowest net worth. (source)

  • The richest 0.1% of the population takes in an average of 188 times as much income as the bottom 90%(source)

  • America’s top 10 percent now average more than nine times as much income as the bottom 90 percent. (source)

  • CEOs of large companies now earn an average of 361 times as much as average U.S. workers. This has risen by an order of magnitude since 1980, when similar CEO pay was only 42 times greater than that of the average worker. (source)

  • American economic mobility is now lower than that of nearly every other major country: Only about 5% of those born into bottom-quartile families manage to ever make it into the top quartile. (source)

  • 17% of U.S. children reside in homes where at least one family member was unable to acquire adequate food due to insufficient resources. The U.S. is even worse in this statistic than economically-challenged nations such as Greece and Chile. (source)

  • Americans borrowed more than $88 billion in 2018 to cover healthcare costs, with nearly 3 million individuals borrowing $10,000 or more. (source)

Many of us have by now become numb to this sort of data. If we react at all, it’s probably with resentment if we’re in the bottom of these numbers, or with sympathy if we’re somewhere closer to the top. If we’re well-off and somewhat superficial Christians, we might recall that Jesus reputedly said “The poor you will always have with you,” and just chalk current conditions up to an eternal verity. Or if we worship at the altar of capitalism, we might dismiss these numbers as an indication that a big chunk of our population just needs to work harder, or smarter, or stop wasting so much of their income on cigarettes, booze and drugs.

If you react in any of these typical ways, then I will argue today that you’re missing the bigger picture, and overlooking the most devastating consequences of our country’s loss of our middle class.

A good place to start for a deeper understanding of the consequences of such widespread systemic poverty would be with this story about the difference a small wage hike made in the life of one man in our country, from a recent piece by Matthew Desmond in The New York Times. Here’s the piece of the story that hit me the hardest:

Once, his younger brother, Alexander, who was 8 at the time, told him he was saving money. “I want to buy one hour of your time,” Payes remembers his brother telling him. “How much for one hour to play with me?” Payes looked at his brother and wept.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Starbucks founder Howard Schultz recently avoiding a direct answer to the question of whether billionaires have too much power in American public life, and instead talking about the excessive influence of “people of means.”

And somewhere in the middle, I suppose, you have my distinguished fellow author from The Michigan Daily, Neal Gabler, who despite all the outward appearances of success, suffers the secret shame of “financial impotence.”

So what is the problem here?

It depends on what you think of humanity, and what you think our purpose is here on earth.

Now hopefully the mention of these topics will engender all sorts of responses from those of you reading this. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wouldn’t want anyone to suggest that we can prescribe any narrow, dogmatic answers to these important questions. Instead, I’d be happy to suggest that the question of what it means to be human is an open-ended one, and that the answer is continually evolving, with new possibilities and variations constantly emerging.

Another way of stating my belief is to put it like this: our mission as humans is the continuing exploration of our developmental possibilities, both individually and collectively.

Now there are lots of human developmental models available. You can use the Integral model or the Spiral Dynamics model or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Again, I have no wish to be narrowly prescriptive.

But what all these models have in common is that we humans start off by being focused primarily on our own survival, much like any other animals, and then, once we have our survival needs covered, go on to do more interesting things.

What sorts of things?

  • Albert Einstein began development of some of his most important theories while working in the Swiss patent office;

  • Charles Darwin began to develop his theory of evolution while on a two-year ocean voyage;

  • Walt Disney started his career by idly drawing cartoons, going to vaudeville shows and movies with his friend Walter Pfeiffer, and taking a correspondence course in cartooning;

  • Chuck Berry’s mother was a teacher, and his father a carpenter with an enthusiasm for poetry and other literature;

  • Pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper became curious about how alarm clocks worked and, at the age of seven, dismantled seven of them before her mother realized what she was doing;

  • Neil Armstrong moved with his family to sixteen different towns while he was growing up, took flying lessons as a teenager, and earned a flight certificate before he received his driver’s license;

  • Steve Jobs grew up in a middle class family, learned the pleasure of making things while working alongside his dad at the workbench in their garage, and spent seven months in India studying Eastern philosophy;

  • Filmmaker George Lucas grew up reading and watching science fiction, spent most of his high school years racing on the underground circuit at fairgrounds, and took courses on anthropology, sociology and literature at his local junior college.

It’s not just these famous people and their historic achievements that are important, though. Once we have our survival needs covered, we humans:

  • Form and nurture caring relationships with friends and loved ones;
  • Find endless ways to improve things by tinkering with existing structures;
  • Create and learn and practice and enjoy a whole host of enriching art forms;
  • Study and learn and contribute to ever-growing bodies of knowledge;
  • Volunteer in our communities;
  • Fashion fun and useful things for ourselves and others;
  • Study societal problems, become informed voters, and perhaps even run for office;
  • And yes, even find time to play with each other.

So who is it that does all these wonderful things that virtually define for us what it means to be human?

Not the poor, who are constantly struggling to keep their heads above water.

Not the wealthy, who are obsessed with acquiring, retaining and using their accumulated money and power.

No, it’s the middle class, those with some spare time and money, those who, to borrow some words from Raymond Chandler, are “neither tarnished nor afraid,” and who make the world “a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”

And so this hollowing out of our middle class that we’re seeing today is also, most tragically, a hollowing out of our collective human potential, a diminishment of our shared developmental opportunities, a crass and thoughtless elimination of the very people with the “means” that matter most: the means to advance our common humanity, to extend our ever-expanding notion of what it means to be human.

And once we’ve wiped out the middle class, what is left in its stead?

  • A vast underclass of people constantly scrabbling just to eke out a living, let alone find some pleasure in their existence;

  • A small overclass constantly flaunting its wealth and privilege, and constantly touting – in crude or subtle ways – the supposedly rare talents that rightfully entitle them to these things;

  • The warped idea that the only worthwhile aspiration for those on the bottom is to somehow join the ranks of those on the top.

Is this a world you want to live in?

Pshaw.

We can do a whole lot better.

Published 2019 Apr 15

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