The Recession Is Making It Harder to Get Into the Middle Class

This post is part of our forum on Don Peck's September story, "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?" Read James Fallows's response to Don here.

Thanks, Jim.  So, resolved: the middle class as a whole does not lie in ruins today.  We're a very rich country, money can't measure some of the improvements in life over the past generation or more, and some of the problems that nag at us now -- inequality, fear of falling, a threadbare safety net -- have always been a part of American life, to one extent or another. I agree with all of that.

I'm uneasy, though, about the idea that perhaps we've reached a level of wealth at which a lack of continuing, widely shared progress -- or even some backsliding within the middle class -- may not matter greatly for personal happiness or social peace. That's possible (Japan's bedrock has not heaved despite some 20 years of stagnation).  But what Maria and Tyler are describing today fits the general historical pattern that Benjamin Friedman has observed: People usually accommodate themselves to a few years of disappointment without much drama.  It's when stagnation lingers for more than few years that the character of life and society begin to change more significantly.

Jim put his finger on a different problem--and to my mind, one that may be more severe.  It's not just the middle class has been stagnating, it's that America's classes have been separating, and the non-professional middle class has been shrinking.  There are fewer pathways into the middle class than there used to be, particularly for people who don't do well in the classroom.  And the recession seems to have accelerated these trends, at least temporarily.

A long, multi-generational downward spiral seems to be beginning, and I don't know where it will end.  Technology and trade are eliminating many of the "middle-skill" jobs that have historically offered a middle-class life to high school graduates.  Men, in particular, are struggling to adapt -- rather than pursuing higher education in greater numbers, many men are simply dropping out of the workforce.  Greater economic insecurity, and the travails of men in particular, are changing family life among people without a college degree - there are fewer marriages and more children growing up in single-parent households.  And we know that children in unstable families tend to struggle in school, renewing the cycle. To me, this spells big trouble for whole idea of middle-class America.

So a couple of questions for my fellow panelists:  How worried (or unworried) are you about the cycle I'm describing, and the implications for opportunity in the U.S.?  Have I got this wrong?  And more generally, what do you see happening to opportunity and mobility in America today?

Maria Kefalas responds here.