Growing middle class poverty in America - coming to a street near you

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Growing middle class poverty in America - coming to a street near you

In today’s America if you are born in rags, you are likelier to stay in rags than in almost any corner of old Europe. In America, you have a smaller chance of swapping your lower income bracket for a higher one than in almost any other developed economy – even Britain on some measures.

The slow economic strangulation of millions of middle-class Americans started long before the Great Recession, which merely exacerbated the “personal recession” that ordinary Americans had been suffering for years.

Dubbed “median wage stagnation” by economists, the annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 – having risen by only 10 per cent in real terms over the past 37 years. That means most Americans have been treading water for more than a generation. Over the same period the incomes of the top 1 per cent have tripled. In 1973, chief executives were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now the ­multiple is above 300.

The trend has only been getting stronger. Most economists see the Great Stagnation as a structural problem – meaning it is immune to the business cycle. In the last expansion, which started in January 2002 and ended in December 2007, the median US household income dropped by $2,000 – the first ever instance where most Americans were worse off at the end of a cycle than at the start. Worse is that the long era of stagnating incomes has been accompanied by something profoundly un-American: declining income mobility.

Technically speaking, Mark Freeman should count himself among the ­luckiest ­people on the planet. The 52-year-old lives with his family on a tree-lined street in his own home in the heart of the wealthiest country in the world. When he is hungry, he eats. When it gets hot, he turns on the air-conditioning. When he wants to look something up, he surfs the internet. One of the songs he likes to sing when he hosts a weekly karaoke evening is Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black”.

Yet somehow things don’t feel so good any more. Last year the bank tried to repossess the Freemans’ home even though they were only three months in arrears. Their son, Andy, was recently knocked off his mother’s health insurance and only painfully reinstated for a large fee. And, much like the boarded-up houses that signal America’s epidemic of foreclosures, the drug dealings and shootings that were once remote from their neighbourhood are edging ever closer, a block at a time.

What is most troubling about the Freemans is how typical they are. Neither Mark nor Connie – his indefatigable wife, who is as chubby as he is gaunt – suffer any chronic medical conditions. Both have jobs at the local ­Methodist Hospital, he as a warehouse receiver and distributor, she as an anaesthesia supply technician. At $70,000 a year, their joint gross income is more than a third higher than the median US household.

Once upon a time this was called the American Dream. Nowadays it might be called America’s Fitful Reverie. Indeed, Mark spends large monthly sums renting a machine to treat his sleep apnea, which gives him insomnia. “If we lost our jobs, we would have about three weeks of savings to draw on before we hit the bone,” says Mark, who is sitting on his patio keeping an eye on the street and swigging from a bottle of Miller Lite. “We work day and night and try to save for our retirement. But we are never more than a pay check or two from the streets.”

Mention middle-class America and most foreigners envision something timeless and manicured, from The Brady Bunch, say, or Desperate Housewives in which teenagers drive to school in sports cars and the girls are always cheerleading. This might approximate how some in the top 10 per cent live. The rest live like the Freemans. Or worse.

Much more of this sobering article http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/1...
By netchicken: posted on 2-8-2010








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