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The painful decline of the American middle class and ways we can solve it

Published: November 20, 2009
Section: Opinions


<i>GRAPHIC BY Leah Lefkowitz/The Hoot</i>

GRAPHIC BY Leah Lefkowitz/The Hoot

Lost somewhere in the recession, I’m sure, is an accountant named Gregory. Greg pulls down about sixty thousand dollars a year, a fair sum. His wife, let’s call her Marie, is a teacher–she earns about fifty thousand dollars a year. Together, they live in a suburban home with their two college-bound children, Mark and Samantha. They live in a middle class paradise. The only problem is they’re flat broke.

Mark and Samantha’s college costs alone (they happen to overlap this year) total almost eighty thousand dollars—and that’s without their personal expenses. Gregory’s bank is cutting back costs and he doesn’t know how long he’ll be employed. Marie and her fellow teachers are desperately lobbying the state to keep health insurance benefits for her children, but it doesn’t look good.

Meanwhile, the roof of the house is starting to leak. Gregory and Marie are on their third loan, and the lenders are waiting like sharks circling a sinking ship.

Welcome to the new reality of the middle class.

Lost somewhere in all the talk of economic downturns is the fact that the middle class is being squeezed. Costs keep going up, incomes are remaining stagnant and there’s no safety net. The price of raising children, putting them through college and paying for health insurance has risen to the point where many families simply can’t afford to pay.

Even those with jobs like accounting and teaching (jobs that once promised a fruitful career with multiple benefits) are feeling the heat today. This is not just a symptom of the recession—this is something that started well before the recession and will continue well after it. However, the recession has exacerbated it to the point where it should not be ignored any longer.

Families afflicted have only a few options when caught in a conundrum in the fashion of Gregory and Marie. They can either cut costs by subverting the future of their children or go down with the ship and still suffer negative consequences. There is very little support for families in these situations and having to choose from these options is no choice at all.

The general regression of the middle class is not in the style of Lou Dobbs’ war however—it’s closer to a battle of attrition. Slowly but surely, as prices rise and incomes remain the same, friction increases. Today’s recession has magnified the trend, as many middle class families find their once steady jobs elusive along with their benefits.

Families with more than one child are especially at risk of financial implosion when the recession strikes. As I’ve stated, one of the more devastating price increases has been the cost of a college education.

The solution provided for this problem is financial aid. However, it is flawed. Government financial aid for college is an effective buttress for the middle class, but Free Application for Federal Student Aid isn’t always the best tool to decipher a family’s needs. The Financial Aid Profile is a much better, although still flawed solution, which will hopefully continue to rise in popularity.

In the end, the only possible solution to this problem is to subsidize students who wish to attend college even more and to give out much more financial aid to those who wish to attend state schools. Today, many state schools rival private schools in their costs and are thus becoming increasingly ineffective as a means for students in the state to escape unbearable costs.

Students should always be able to easily afford to attend a state school, as the very purpose of a state school is to provide a quality upper education at a more affordable price than private schools.

As for raising children, the only option for aid is currently welfare. With this solution, one has already given up middle class status so the preservation of the middle class becomes a moot point.

My solution to this problem would be for the government to provide marginal assistance to middle class families who need it before they have to join the welfare lines (which will be a much longer and more costly affair.) I’m not saying we should create welfare for the middle class. I simply believe that providing some leverage to middle class families in any form can prevent them losing that status.

One possible solution in this manner might include a loan that is paid off after a long period of time with very low interest. This type of aid would help the middle class at a time when it needs it most. The question of whether this program would be temporary or long-lasting could be dealt with after the recession.

For health care, my personal opinion is that there should be a public option. Anyone who doesn’t feel they can afford private insurance, especially in today’s economy (where benefits disappear faster than the spirit of bipartisanship), should be able to purchase health care at a lower price.

This would prevent middle class families from having to choose between a college education for their children and their children’s health. It would also greatly help the poor who can’t afford insurance and would help the nation as a whole by preventing more people from joining the Medicaid roll.

All in all, the most important part of solution is an increase in action. There’s an increasing stratification of class in the United States as more and more citizens of the middle class are downgraded to the lower class. By helping citizens when they are on this precipice rather than waiting until they have fallen off, the government can lend a helping hand not only to these people but to itself.

The costs of welfare are ballooning as more and more people are forced out of the middle class. The long-term costs of helping someone stay on their feet as opposed to helping them back on their feet are enormously disparate. When it provides aid (which could even be repayable) to the middle class, it can prevent these citizens from needing more dire aid when they join the ranks of the poor.

Also, the increased college subsidies and health care reform would help the system as it would lead to more people going to college (always more beneficial in the long run) and a less bloated Medicaid system (which would certainly save more money in the long run).

Thus, this solution would save money in the long run and benefit the nation as a whole. As a final note, the time to act is now. If nothing is done, the bills will just continue to add up–for both the middle class and the government.