The Parent Trap

Want to be "middle class"? Don't have kids.

Yet something has to be done. Full-time childcare or preschool costs more than tuition at the University of Minnesota. Correspondingly, parents can now take out loans to pay for preschool. Imagine, in several years, even as we are still writing checks for the loans left over from our own educations, my husband and I could also be paying to service our kids' kindergarten readiness debt and talking to the bank about financing college, since we obviously earn too much to qualify for financial aid.

 

I'm not going to tell you how much money I make. As for most Americans, talking about my own money makes me uncomfortable. If we aren't making ends meet, most of us were raised to think, we haven't done everything right. Besides, there's always someone who has less, which makes it easy to write off virtually anyone's complaints as so much privileged hand wringing.

Like pretty much everyone else, though, I am convinced I am middle class. And yet until I started writing this article, it never occurred to me that I have no idea what the boundaries of that class are. An informal canvas of my co-workers and friends suggests that most people would consider the prospective-parent friends I referred to earlier as solidly middle class, whether their $52,000 a year can stretch to support kids, a house, and a nest egg or not.

The upper boundary of the middle, however, seems to hover somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000. People with that kind of money, popular reasoning holds, don't have anything to worry about. If they're whining, we are sure it's because they've frittered their lucre away on SUVs and lattes. Never mind that for families with kids, fixed expenses run so high that such hallmarks of the middle class as retirement accounts and a rainy-day fund have become luxuries.

It's increasingly clear that those fixed expenses are a financial setup. According to The Two-Income Trap, by the end of the decade five million American families with children will have filed for bankruptcy, bringing the total to one in seven. And for all but a fraction of those families, the problem isn't overconsumption; 87 percent of those bankruptcies will be because of a job loss, a medical problem, or a divorce or separation.

Bankruptcy expert Warren and her co-author have earned their share of criticism for making some screwball policy recommendations. For instance, they advocate school vouchers as a way to keep people from taking on overly large mortgages so they can live in better school districts and, oddly, give the nod to universal preschool but not public subsidies for daycare. But even given those quibbles, it's hard to argue that things are all right in this country when such a large chunk of the middle class simply can't make it.

"There is a lesson here," Warren and Warren Tyagi write. "To put sound economic policies on the political agenda, families also need to find a face. So long as they are 'debtors' or 'bankrupts,' their needs can be dismissed. Instead, they need to be seen as members of powerful constituencies, members of groups that command the respect--and the fear--of the political elite. Families in financial trouble must be depicted as they really are: 'parents of young children,' 'nonresident fathers paying child support,' 'suburban homeowners,' 'African American middle-class families,' 'single mothers,' 'families sending a kid to college,' 'multigenerational Hispanic families.' Most of all, the groups that defend these people need to organize against those who are picking their constituents' pockets."

About those pickpockets: According to "The Class Wars," a two-part series published last year in the New York Times Magazine, the ranks of the middle class are dwindling, and fast. Recent years have seen an unprecedented transfer of wealth in this country, as the middle class has been fleeced to the benefit of a small number of mega-rich. Between 1979 and 1997, after-tax incomes of the top 1 percent of families rose 157 percent, while the incomes of the families near the middle of the spectrum rose just 10 percent, according to the Times. The country's richest 13,000 families have incomes 300 times that of average families--and that's to say nothing of the accrued wealth many of them already possess.

The heyday of the middle class, defined by Princeton professor and Times columnist Paul Krugman, began in the 1930s and has been marching inexorably toward its conclusion since the 1970s. "By most measures we are, in fact, back to the days of The Great Gatsby," Krugman reported. "After 30 years in which the income shares of the top 10 percent of taxpayers, the top 1 percent and so on were far below their levels in the 1920s, all are very nearly back where they were."

And the social attitudes of employers are, if anything, even more retrograde than they were then. Henry Ford was a bigot, a moralizer, and a Nazi sympathizer. He didn't want to have to live with the blacks or poor whites that flocked to Detroit to build his cars, and he'd have liked to make sure there were no libertines among their ranks. But his outlook was in one sense less draconian than that of today's captains of industry. Ford understood, bottom line, that a worker who didn't make a fair day's wage couldn't buy his product. And thus, his contempt for the hoi polloi notwithstanding, he took pains to pay his workers enough to buy the cars they were building. One can only hope the same insight eventually occurs to our latter-day plutocrats. I'm not holding my breath.

 

The JOBS NOW Coalition's complete report on the true cost of living in Minnesota is abailable at www.jobsnowcoalition.org or by calling 651.290.0240. The website also features an interactive budget calculator, information about the group's political activities, and reports on its other research initiatives.

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