Saturday, April 21, 2007

Middle Class Woes?

Recently, CBS Sunday Morning's show profiled the economic situation of America's middle class, which, from the reporter's point of view, isn't as financially secure as their parents' generation, with health care and college tuition said to play significant roles in the decline.

As usual, this "in depth" segment was given only ten or fifteen minutes -- hardly long enough to provide verifiable data, let alone any historical or cultural perspective. The single-agenda telescoping of facts and lack of context in this type of "news" presentation quite simply makes me crazy.

One of the families profiled lives in Ohio, a couple who both work, who has four children, two of whom are in college and cost the parents $45,000 per year for living expenses (not including tuition loans). The couple's combined gross income is $80,000, so their struggle appears obvious; yet, the home shown in the video was very attractive, decorated with what looked like fairly new furniture, and the parents were themselves comfortably padded, indicating that little starvation was going on.

The reporter went to great lengths to elicit pathos for this poor family bearing such a burden and not "getting ahead" as their parents' generation did, but only "staying even."

While I applaud the family's efforts to educate their children, I have to wonder.... there was no mention made of the kids working to help support themselves through college life. They obviously attend on a generous parentship -- to the tune of $22,500 each annually. That says to me, private apartment, car, cool clothes, very few Tap Ramen meals and plenty of spending money. You just lost my sympathy vote, middle class Ohio family.

Even in my generation, it was not assumed that all kids would attend college. It was our hope and dream, certainly, but was not a given. It was also assumed that for the "average middle class family" college attendance would presuppose a financial burden -- one that could be planned for and one that could also be shared by the student

When compared to my parents' generation (those who lived through the Great Depression) America's middle class is drowning in consumerism and encumbered to death by their aspirations, acquisitions and credit card debt.

Maybe it's my perspective that is out of whack here. Maybe "middle class" really does mean that a family should be able to enjoy an expensive vacation every year, buy each new technogadget on the market, reside in a new home with every amenity, eat dinner out ten times a month, resist bearing much of the burden of health care, and finally relax in a comfortable, secure retirement. Oh - of course they would also send little Brianna and Cody to private primary and secondary schools, then on to pricey universities without expecting the kids to work.

It would be easy here to wax nostalgic for the less complex world of the parents of the boomer generation -- those WW II vets' families who truly did struggle to build a successful American middle class through very hard work, expert money management (translation: squeezing the nickel until the buffalo moaned) and an old-fashioned concept of actually having cold cash in hand before buying something. My in-laws love to reminisce about that time in their lives, and one of the primary factors of their eventual financial success was buying what they needed, not necessarily what they (or their children) wanted.

Life then was not yet controlled by consumerism. Madison Avenue did not yet have a death grip on America's collective soul, although certainly that post-war era was the nursery of the mass marketing industry. It's taken two solid generations for the hard lessons learned by the children of the Depression to morph into our culture of "I must have everything, and I must have it right now."

Depending on which source of online statistics you reference, the U.S. is either the second or the fifth richest nation in the world. When mirrored against the world's population, America's middle class is wealthy, and when compared to figures from the Third World, it's obscenely rich. Our tax burden, however, isn't as harsh as many countries, we pay less for fuel and food than many European countries, and while we do pay through our middle class noses for health care, it's still damn good health care overall.

If we looked honestly and objectively at our middle class lifestyle, at all the things we have that make our lives comfortable and easy, at all the thousand ways we find to spend (or charge) discretionary dollars, at the ways we pamper our kids (to their detriment), I think we'd have to admit that we middle classers have it pretty darn good these days.

If we're not "getting ahead" as our parents did, I don't think it's due to the economic climate of America or health care or anything beyond our control. We simply don't live with the discipline and restraint our parents and grandparents had. We want far more, we have far more, and according to CBS News, we deserve even more... and more... and more.

What I've found in my experience is that more... more work, more debt, more possessions, more responsibilities, simply equals more stress and brings less value to my life. Certainly the frantic pace of our American life is driven by the "more" concept. How lovely by contrast is the title of a collection of work by the Zen poet Ryokan, "One Robe, One Bowl."

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