The economic insecurity felt by middle-class Americans is as widespread as it is well known. While folks are one paycheck from slipping out of the middle class, we also know that such a slip isn’t permanent. A Census report released in January showed how fluid membership in the vaunted middle class is. But a report from the centrist think tank Third Way released that same month showed that a middle-class job no longer supports a middle-class life.

The six-page report by Jim Kessler and Gabe Horwitz featured an arresting chart to illustrate how serious this problem is.


(Third Way)

The four tickets to a middle-class life are owning a home, sending a kid to college, having health insurance and saving for retirement. As the chart shows, the costs of three of the tickets outstrip inflation, which also is more than income. And income has risen nowhere near fast enough to pay for them or save for retirement.

According to the Third Way report, college costs have risen 307 percent between 1989 and 2010.  College is now “a necessity while priced as a luxury,” Kessler and Horwitz write. While Obamacare gives consumers “stable and secure coverage that can never be taken away,” health-care costs are still through the roof. They have risen 223 percent in the last 32 years. The cost of housing has gone up 85 percent during that same period. Inflation rose 76 percent over those years, but wages only went up 70 percent.

When you look at the chart, you can see income starts to dip around 2007. You can also see net wealth nosedive that same year. Between 1989 and 2010, the money Americans have to retire increased just 19 percent. “The typical couple on the verge of retirement has only $42,000 in retirement assets, along with Social Security, pension and other assets (like a house), to finance an expected combined 45 years of retirement living,” write Kessler and Horwitz. To make matters worse, 55 percent of private-sector workers are not participating in an employment-based retirement plan.

President Obama pushing for an increase in the federal minimum wage in Ann Arbor, Mich. yesterday. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images) President Obama pushing for an increase in the federal minimum wage in Ann Arbor, Mich. yesterday. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

“[W]e believe in opportunity for everybody.  More good jobs for everybody.  More workers to fill those jobs,” President Obama said yesterday at a Michigan rally pushing for an increase in the federal minimum wage. “A world-class education for everybody. Hard work that pays off with wages you can live on and savings you can retire on and health care you can count on. That’s what ‘opportunity for all’ means. That’s what it means.”

“Opportunity for all” takes on a whole new meaning when you know that a middle-class job no longer supports a middle-class life. Raising the minimum wage would help. But so, too, would a functioning Congress that eschewed its incessant and foolhardy attempts to repeal Obamacare for real action on bringing down all the costs of admission to the middle class. That’s too much to ask, I suppose.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.
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