The middle class in America is in crisis, with incomes falling and life expectancy worsening. Why? And what can be done about it?
What’s it like to be a middle-class American?
Increasingly precarious, it seems. In an article entitled “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans” in this month’s issue of The Atlantic, the writer Neal Gabler – an author, film critic and academic – came out as one of the many millions of apparently middle-class Americans who are in fact living in a “more or less continual state of financial peril” –scrabbling around to make ends meet, and mostly failing.
Gabler draws attention to a regular survey by the Federal Reserve, which asks consumers a set of questions, including how they would pay for a $400 emergency. “The answer: 47% of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all”, writes Gabler. “Four hundred dollars! Who knew? Well, I knew. I knew because I am in that 47%.”
Does the data support this?
Yes. Research into this niche area of microeconomics – day-to-day “financial fragility” – has boomed since the Great Recession, according to David Johnson, an economist at the University of Michigan who specialises in income and wealth inequality. A 2014 survey study found that only 38% of Americans would cover a $1,000 emergency medical bill or a $500 car repair bill with money they had saved.