The current situation of the middle strata of Americans is precarious. A recent AP study says that four out of five US adults have long periods of economic insecurity. What does this mean for the future of the middle class? We can see an answer in the lives of the people already most affected by the changes in the economy, young working class people.
Jennifer Silva has written a book, Coming Up Short, which was the subject of a book salon here at FDL. She describes her results in shorter form in this excellent post, here, and here where she writes:
I spent two years interviewing 100 working-class 20- and 30-somethings in Lowell, Mass., and Richmond. I spoke with African-Americans and whites, men and women, documenting the myriad obstacles that stand in their way. Caught in a merciless job market and lacking the social support, skills, and knowledge necessary for success, these young adults are relinquishing the hope for a better future that is at the core of the American Dream.
Two things stand out about the life stories she collects in the book. First, a large number of the people she interviewed have serious problems in their lives, parents who are abusive or who abuse drugs and alcohol, drug and alcohol problems for the interviewees themselves, psychological problems like ADHD or OCD, and general lack of direction. That is sad enough in itself. But the second thing is the way they respond to those problems. They blame themselves or their families, but they are not able to see that these problems and the problems their parents faced are the results of a rotting economic system.
Silva explains that the people she talked to are unable to find the kind of financial security and personal stability necessary to achieve the traditional markers of adulthood: living on your own, holding a job, creating a family and gradually acquiring material possessions common to the middle class, a car, a house, a good education for their children, and a decent retirement. These are the aspirations of the middle class as defined by the President’s Middle Class Task Force. Since they cannot even aspire to these goals, they construct a different set of markers for adulthood.
They see themselves as the protagonist in a struggle with their pasts. They see adulthood as the stage when they can manage the handicaps they see in their lives, when they can overcome their ADHD or get past their addictive personalities, and live with themselves comfortably. They have adopted what Silva calls the therapeutic model for adulthood. That model begins with the idea that only after you fully know and accept your self can you enter into a valid relationship with someone else. It also teaches that your relationship is only valid as long as it meets your personal needs, and when it doesn’t, you leave. How can this possibly lead to stable relationships?
This therapeutic language surrounds them, on Oprah, in the Prosperity Gospel, in the Prayer of Jabez and in any of the staggering number of self-help books written by an equally staggering number of earnest and optimistic sons and daughters of Norman Vincent Peale. The only reason you fail in this greatest of all countries is because something is lacking in you. You didn’t pray hard enough, you failed to accept yourself, you didn’t come to grips with your personal problems, you chose the wrong person as a partner.
This sense that they can only rely on themselves to succeed is reinforced by the failure or perceived failure of social institutions, schools, churches, parents, and government. No one and no group lifts a finger to help these young people cope, and many create barriers to success. They have to figure it out themselves, and then do it by themselves. This, says Silva, is reinforced by neoliberal orthodoxy: you’re on your own. She reports that her interviewees think that if they have to make their own way, so should everyone else. If others fail, it’s because of their own weakness, their own inability to handle their problems.
What I would call a failure of society, they call personal failure.
What does this tell us about the future of the middle class? Silva says that the few success stories she found shared one factor. They all had close relatives who helped the young person see how to cope with the system well enough to succeed, either by teaching or by example. As Silva says in the book salon, talking about the problems facing the children of middle income families:
The problem is that raising kids takes so many private resources – it really is up to the parents alone to pay for schools and tutors and college prep classes and activities and who knows what else. So it is very stressful to have all that responsibility on the private family alone. And for people on the bottom who don’t even know college counselors exist, and can’t afford them, it is doubly impossible.
When families go through long periods of financial insecurity, they endure stresses and strains that have to affect their children. And, they eat up the resources they need to help their kids make it in a complicated and absurd society. When parents finally get jobs, they need their incomes to pay the debts they incurred while unemployed, and to replenish their savings against an uncertain future for themselves. That reduces the money available to help their children succeed. They don’t have the money to pay to deal with the kinds of problems the young people in Silva’s study present: drug use, ADHD, OCD, and a general sense that the world is not a safe place, all things reinforced by the strains the parents endure in periods of unemployment. They can’t save for college or pay for enrichment activities that used to be available through schools. Even families with college educations will be hard pressed to keep their kids in the middle class.
For a short time in our history, we had social structures that shared out the costs of raising kids. As a society, we thought it was important to educate our children through tax-supported schools and colleges. We thought it was important to tax ourselves to build an infrastructure that would support an economy that worked for everyone. We thought it was important to break down the barriers that prevented large groups of us from participating in democracy and education and the economy. We thought it was important for everyone to be in the middle class.
We are not that society any longer. There isn’t a future for the middle class unless we become that society again.
Other posts in this series:
A Future for the Middle Class
Mass Consumption Created and Killed the Middle Class
The Middle Class is Not for Itself
Capital Accumulation But Not For You
Middle Class Muddle
Thinking About Class Structure of the United States