Friday, September 19, 2014

Help!! I've fallen out of the Middle Class and can't get up.

"It isn't what you earn but how you spend it that fixes your class," - Sinclair Lewis, American novelist. (1885-1951).

Belonging to the American middle class was never doubted when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. My parents both knew where they had come from -- hard-scrabble farm life and running a boarding house -- and certainly knew where they were going --- straight into the post-World War II middle class.
By the time I came into the picture, they were leading a relatively secure, if not comfortable middle class life with a new car purchased with cash every three years and an ambitious remodel of their farm house that gave them the amenities of  suburban living -- living room with an open brick fireplace, big picture windows, redwood paneling and a wall-mounted GE refrigerator in the tidy kitchen.
By the 1960s, there was enough money to send both me and my sister to college over an eight-year period without taking out student loans. My parents traveled, enjoyed their friends who were mostly in the same socio-economic class. My mother did not work outside the home but was always on the look-out for bargains at local clothing stores and in the grocery aisles. There was that frenzy of collecting Green Stamps and turning them in for "rewards" out of a catalog.
Mother made our prom dresses more for fun than to save money. She canned peaches, made grape juice and froze green beans. She had a garden. She bought corporate stocks a few shares at a time. Exxon and IBM were her favorites.
Growing up, it never occurred to me that we were anything but middle class although I did go through my own little rebellion after reading "Main Street" by Sinclair Lewis. His was a brutal attack on the "petty backstabbers and hypocrites of small town America" in the early 20th Century. I bought into some of that but never really walked away from my roots.
Yes, my parents were careful with money, avoided debt and spent within their means. There was tension in their relationship but what they had built together meant more than any other issues.
Up until lately, I too felt solidly anchored in the middle class. No longer.
In fact I'm pretty sure I've slipped totally out of the middle class. My kids certainly have. Here's how I know:
- I no longer even think about buying a new car every three years or even every six years. Come to think of it, I never buy a new car at least not since 1971.
- Tickets to Broadway road shows that come through my city are out of my reach. $100, $200, no way!
- Taking my grandson to a Mariners baseball game in Seattle is nearly out of my reach. Going to an NFL professional football game...forget it.
- After more than 25 years, the Nordstrom store that anchored my hometown mall is closing. That tells me that I'm not alone in no longer fitting the Nordstrom customer profile in a smaller market. Nordstrom has moved into the luxury retail category and left me behind.
Hey, I've been a card-carrying Nordstrom's customer since 1973 when I lived in Seattle. But my shopping there has declined as store prices even with deep discounts have became unreasonable.
My kids have never owned homes. I bought my first home at age 25. My mortgage payment on the house I own now is half what they aree paying in apartment rent.
They aren't saving money or investing. They can't. Their income and household expenses don't allow it.
It seems like our kids have either made the leap into upper class six-figure incomes or they've slid into just getting by.
I ask myself who IS buying the new cars? Who IS shopping at Nordstrom?
Who can afford those Broadway show tickets that seem to sell out? Hey, I know the super rich have gotten richer. I know that wealth is concentrated in fewer hands. Certainly not mine.
With more baby boomers retiring by the day, I can't help but think more of them are reconsidering their status and putting extraordinary spending on hold. That's got to be having an impact on the U.S. economy. I am no longer a consumer and we know that consumers drive the economy, right?
I'm not buying a new car.
I'm not buying a house.
I don't subscribe to cable television.
I'm spending less on clothes, gasoline and even food since I stopped working full-time.
Heck, I'm spending less on shampoo and cosmetics. Working from home does have advantages. No, I have not given up my hair stylist or a good bottle of wine, although that bottle is less expensive than what I was drinking eight years ago.
Of course I'm not the first to notice this erosion of middle class buying power or economic security. Many have measured and commented on the trend.
("Middle-class squeeze: Costs rise 32 percent while wages stagnate" - Seattle Times, click here.)
Joel Kotkin, writing at the DailyBeast,.com sees the economic "yeoman" that Thomas Jefferson recognized as the backbone of his democracy in decline.
"While middle class incomes have fallen relative to the upper income groups, house prices and health insurance, utilities and college tuition costs have soared," he notes. "By margins of more than two to one, more Americans believe they enjoy fewer economic opportunities than their parents, and will experience far less job security and disposable income. This pessimism is particularly intense among white working class voters, and large sections of the middle class."
I am not completely without hope that younger Americans will find their footing and re-invent the middle class.
The other day while shopping at a second-hand sporting goods store in downtown Portland, the young man helping me told me that he and his wife had recently bought a house. It was located in a lower-income suburb and sold for several hundred thousand dollars less than what they would have paid if it had been closer to the trendy Portland urban core. He was proud of the investment and confident of the future.
Maybe the new urbanites are not a permanent generation of renters. Maybe the middle class will, after all, experience a revival. My guess is that the new middle class will look a lot different than I do.
The new middle class will buy soccer tickets instead of NFL game tickets.
The new middle class go to less expensive clubs rather than spend money on mega-concerts at arenas.
The new middle class may ride a bicycle rather than own a car.
The new middle class may be able to build wealth through homeownership but that home is going to look different than mine --- smaller, more energy-efficient.
Those Broadway tickets? We will leave those to the rich people.
Popcorn, anyone?. 

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