Within the middle class, there has been a widening divide between those in its upper reaches whose jobs provide the trappings of the good life, and those in the lower rungs whose economic fortunes are less secure.
The growing income gap corresponds to a long-term restructuring of the workforce that has carved out jobs from the center. In 1969, two categories of jobs -- blue-collar and administrative support -- together accounted for 56 percent of U.S. workers, according to an analysis by economists Frank Levy of MIT and Richard J. Murnane of Harvard. Thirty years later the share was just 39 percent.
Chuck Moore plays with his son, Chase, 3, before bedtime. This past weekend, Moore accepted a job as a veterinary assistant for half what he had been making in his old job.
(Jay Paul For The Washington Post)
Transcript: Washington Post staff writer Griff Witte was online to field questions and comments about this article.
Video: The Washington Post's Griff Witte discusses the shift in the workforce.
About This Series|
This is the first in an occasional series about the changes roiling the middle of the American workforce -- the disappearance of many jobs that pay near the national average of $17 per hour, with benefits such as health care and pensions. Other stories in the series will address how companies are moving work to temporary employees and people in other countries, and will look at the prospects for new types of jobs to take the place of those lost.
Jobs at the low and high ends have replaced those in the middle -- the ranks of janitors and fast-food workers have expanded, but so have those of lawyers and doctors. The problem is, jobs at the low end don't support a middle-class life. And many at the high end require special skills and advanced degrees. "However you define the middle class, it's a lot harder now for high school graduates to be in it," Levy said.
College graduates aren't immune, either. In places like Richmond, the overall health of the economy masks layoffs that have snared not only blue-collar workers like Clark, but also thousands of office workers at companies like credit card giant Capital One Financial Corp. and high-tech retailer Circuit City Stores Inc. Those cutbacks have educated even those with bachelor's degrees in the new ways of a volatile economy.
A University of California at Berkeley study last year found that as many as 14 million jobs are vulnerable to being sent overseas. Many economists, though, say offshoring is more opportunity than threat because it allows companies to make and sell goods for less, and offer even better jobs than those that are lost. "Offshoring can't explain job loss. It can only explain job switch," said David R. Henderson, a Hoover Institution economist.
Henderson says the middle class is thriving, and by many measures, he's right. As a group they're earning more money than they have before, and their ranks have swollen with members who can afford the DVDs, SUVs and MP3s now seen by many families as part of the essential backdrop to modern life. Whereas Census numbers show the median household earned $33,338 in 1967 when adjusted for inflation, that number was up by $10,000 in 2003.
But when compared with those at the top, the middle has lost much ground. And many in the middle have dropped well behind their peers.
The gaps are likely to widen, according to Robert H. Frank, a Cornell economist. He said that as more people worldwide become available to do routine work for less money and as computers take on increasingly complex functions, the demand for those Americans whose skills are easily duplicated could drop. "The new equilibrium," Frank said, "may be a little meaner and more unpleasant than it was before."
Believing in Ma Bell
In the Washington area, the federal government and its contractors have cushioned the impact of the change in the workforce. But you don't have to travel far for evidence of the shift: Just two hours south on I-95, to Richmond.
From a distance, like many parts of the United States, Richmond looks like a place where the middle class should thrive. As its economy evolved over the past century from agriculture to manufacturing to services and, finally, to technology, it hung on to some aspects of each phase. That diversity keeps the jobless rate below the national average. Paychecks for professionals are growing. Major corporations such as Philip Morris USA are adding staff. A biotech park has taken root in downtown. Two new malls recently opened in the suburbs.
And yet, for some who lack the right skills to match employers' demands, Richmond has less to offer than it used to.
"I think we're tending not to see any growth in the middle," said Michael Pratt, a Virginia Commonwealth University economics professor, "but I don't know anywhere in America where you are."
It wasn't always that way.
When Fred Agostino moved to suburban Richmond to head the Henrico County Economic Development Authority in the mid-1980s, employers wanted semi-skilled workers they could train for half a day and hire for life at a decent wage with benefits. Now companies looking to relocate to Richmond just want to know what percentage of the local population has a PhD. "They have to have educated, skilled, world-class people," Agostino said.
Meanwhile, the lifetime jobs were cut short.