America’s middle classes are no longer coping

 By Robert Reich

30/01/08 “FT” — – 28/01/08 — It is an election year and the US economy is in peril of falling into recession or worse. Not surprisingly, Washington is abuzz with plans to prevent it. President George W. Bush has proposed a $150bn stimulus package and all the main presidential candidates are offering similar measures, including middle-class tax cuts and increased spending on infrastructure.Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have reduced interest rates another three-quarters of a point. But none of these fixes will help much because they do not deal with the underlying anxieties now gripping American voters. The problem lies deeper than the current slowdown and transcends the business cycle.

The fact is, middle-class families have exhausted the coping mechanisms they have used for more than three decades to get by on median wages that are barely higher than they were in 1970, adjusted for inflation. Male wages today are in fact lower than they were then: the income of a young man in his 30s is now 12 per cent below that of a man his age three decades ago. Yet for years now, America’s middle class has lived beyond its pay cheque. Middle-class lifestyles have flourished even though median wages have barely budged. That is ending and Americans are beginning to feel the consequences.

The first coping mechanism was moving more women into paid work. The percentage of American working mothers with school-age children has almost doubled since 1970 – from 38 per cent to close to 70 per cent. Some parents are now even doing 24-hour shifts, one on child duty while the other works. These families are known as Dins: double income, no sex.

But we reached the limit to how many mothers could maintain paying jobs. What to do? We turned to a second coping mechanism. When families could not paddle any harder, they started paddling longer. The typical American now works two weeks more each year than 30 years ago. Compared with any other advanced nation we are veritable workaholics, putting in 350 more hours a year than the average European, more even than the notoriously industrious Japanese.

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