Living Below Your Means
The Middle Class Squeeze?

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By blackmare
March 19, 2004

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I saw a very downbeat article the other day in an issue of one of our major news magazines, TIME I think it was, but don't quote me on that.

The subject was the squeezing of the middle class in America--the inability of the average family to afford the dream of the nice house on a good street, close to decent schools for their kids. The rise in housing costs, decrease in real purchasing power, increase in debt. The point was made that our lives are not better than they were a generation ago, when a single-income family could maintain a middle-class lifestyle. Now we've got parents struggling to keep up, on two incomes.

There were points on which I agreed that economic factors are at work, but what the writer didn't address was the massive increase in expectations between this generation and the last one. That "nice house" is a lot bigger than it used to be. It has an extra bathroom. It must be equipped with a microwave, cable or satellite TV, a two-car garage, raised ceilings, larger rooms (and therefore more furniture). There have got to be two cars in that garage and we really want to buy them new. Family members must have computers, Internet access, and of course cell phones. On our landline we must have call waiting, caller ID and voice mail. And we're WILLING to literally mortgage our futures to have all these things--to buy that big home rather than the smaller one our parents might have bought. Our definition of "middle class" has changed.

I wondered what would happen if we, as a culture, decided to live differently?

It feels almost as if the media, through advertising and even through serious articles like this one, is encouraging Americans to look at their financial difficulties as being entirely outside their control. "We can't help it, it just takes this kind of money to maintain a middle-class home. We need to get paid more but we also want prices to go down." I wish, but I suspect it will never happen that way. I think we've learned to expect a level of luxury that never really was "middle class." And we're so conditioned to it that we forget it's luxury--we forget we didn't grow up this way, we didn't have $500 worth of Playstations and games, our parents drove used Buicks, and it was fine.

Now I'm not saying there aren't things in desperate need of change. Currently I am trying to figure out if I can afford health insurance, as a self-employed person. It's scary. My tax rate is scary. The cost of disability insurance, which I also probably should have--I don't even want to think about it, but I've got to. The cost of a college education is staggering (but that's a topic for another thread).

There IS a squeeze on the middle class, without doubt. I'd just like to hear the mainstream media admit that part of the problem is that our "middle class" expectations have gotten a bit out of hand.


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