Living the American Dream seems like a simple plan: work hard; get an education, a job and a house; then live happily ever after. This story is more than just a recipe for success, it's a concept so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche it's often confused with destiny. So, as middle-class families struggle to pay their bills and suffocate under a mountain of debt, many are beginning to wonder what went wrong.
Nan Mooney details the economic struggles of today's middle class in her important new book, (Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class (Beacon Press, $24.95). Introducing what she calls a new reality for middle-class workers, Mooney tracks the economic and policy changes that have contributed to the financial decline among those who were once considered to be the backbone of the American economy.
Mooney explains how the strength of the American economy and the vitality of the professional middle class are closely intertwined, using the stories of hundreds of educated professionals, such as teachers and social workers who are watching their wages stagnate while the cost of living continues to skyrocket.
And Mooney isn't just writing about the issue, she is living it. Even after publishing three books Mooney found herself in a tight financial spot that forced her to move back to Seattle from New York City to live with her parents.
Nan and I met recently over coffee, and with her seven-month-old son squirming on her lap, we talked about her new book, living with her parents and other realities of her life as a professional, middle-class, single mom.
What first interested you in this topic?
Well, much of the inspiration for it came from the story of my own personal life as a mid-30s journalist and the lives of so many people I knew. We had all gone to college, we worked very hard, we had at least one job -- a lot of people I knew had multiple jobs -- and we were still really struggling to make it financially. Everyone was just really, really anxious about money, and asking questions like, "What did I do wrong? I must be stupid because I'm doing everything I'm supposed to be doing and still can't make this work."
The book actually started out as an article, but I hadn't even begun to scratch the surface of what was going on. So I interviewed over 100 people from all over the country from a lot of different professions, most of which tended to be in the social-service sector, non-profit, education and environmental fields. It ended up being a big swath of the population.
Did you find any trends that surprised you?
It was actually more verifying what I had suspected, and I don't want to say hoped to find because you don't want people to be struggling, but what seemed to be the truth was that people all over -- it didn't matter what they were doing or where they were living -- were truly struggling. And it was the combination of everything they had to pay for. If it had just been housing prices, or if it had just been health care, people probably could have scrimped and saved, but everything was a struggle. People had these middle-class jobs where the wages really haven't gone up very much, if at all, in the past 10-20 years, but fixed costs have kept inching higher.
It's not necessarily the subsistence items like food that people can't afford -- although that's getting more and more expensive especially now -- but to afford any lifestyle beyond that has become really tough. Historically, though, this type of middle-class family should be fairly secure with the jobs and education they have.
How do you define the American middle class?
There really is no official definition of the middle class. For my purposes, the educated professional middle class was [made up of] people who had at least a four-year college degree; often times they had graduate degrees as well. Many are in education, social services, art, or the lower ends of the higher paying fields. Income-wise, the people I interviewed made roughly $30,000-$100,000 a year, with couples maybe even making up to $125,000.
You found people making $100,000 a year who called themselves middle class?
Yes. Actually, most people think they're middle class. And I find interesting a poll done by the New York Times when I was writing the book where they interviewed people with huge incomes, and everybody who'd gone to college considered themselves middle class. It didn't matter what amount of money they were making. They could be making $20,000 and they would still be middle class because they'd gone to college.
College is really important in this culture, and in our country there is the rhetoric that if you go to college, you will be okay because you've followed all the rules. I think it's particularly frustrating to those people to still be struggling so much. They don't understand how that happens.
They figure they should be living the American Dream, right?
Yes, and they aren't.
Is the American Dream a myth?
I think it's becoming a myth for a lot of people. And even though it's not your fault that you're in a tighter financial spot than you expected to be in, it's very hard to lower your expectations because it feels like failure. Also I think that we place too much emphasis on the individual being able to fix this problem, because it's really a collective issue.
Speaking of fault, where is that line between personal and governmental responsibility?
That's a really important point, especially in this country where "personal responsibility" has become such a watchword. We're supposed to be personally responsible for everything, and it's supposed to be a freedom that we have to pay for our own retirement, our own health care. Employers used to provide pensions and other savings plans that have all but vanished. The system is out of whack. We need social safety measures in the government to help balance things out.
What were your personal circumstances that led you to come back here from New York? Was it the safety net of your family?
Yes. I wanted to have a child, and I'm 38 now, so I was 36, 37. I ended up getting pregnant, I'm a single mother, and I had to come back to Seattle to live with my parents. That was the only way financially that I could make this happen. There's just no way as a single parent that I can afford child care. But these are the kinds of choices that a lot of people are making: moving back with their family, sharing housing, and going on federal assistance.
I know people say that it's a choice to have children, and it's certainly a choice to have children on your own. But I would counter that. First, we have to have children because the future of the country depends on it. And second, we don't live in a country where only the rich are allowed to have kids -- at least I certainly hope we don't live in that country!
You talk in your book about being unable to provide a safety network for our generation's children, like many of our parents have done for us.
Because a lot of our parents are helping us out with down payments for houses, school tuition, cars, all those kinds of things and if we're not able to do that for our kids, how are they going to afford that? One guy I interviewed put it very aptly when he said, "Not only are we in a hole, but we're dragging our parents down into that hole with us." Because a lot of these parents who are helping out their kids, they are in recent retirement or haven't even retired yet, and in 20, 30 years they could still be needing to support themselves.
So if they run into trouble, their children will likely not be able to help them out. Many of the people I interviewed said they didn't plan to retire at all, and I feel the same way; I can't conceive of having enough money set aside -- unless something dramatic happens between now and then -- that I could support myself.
With the cost of education climbing rapidly, do you think that at some point college might not be worth it, financially speaking?
That's a tricky area, because you definitely are better off if you get a college education than if you don't. But I think we just need to be realistic about what it means now to go to college. It means getting an education, it means opening up job opportunities, but, for most people, it also means taking out a tremendous amount of debt and it's very hard to recover from.
Speaking of education, you went to Scripps College, a fairly prestigious, private college, right?
Yeah, I went to private schools my whole life. I have an excellent education. I have always worked very, very hard. I didn't go into a big money career, but I was really finding myself in a position as a journalist where I was having trouble even paying rent. I was still single, but I wanted to think about having a child and maybe moving away from Manhattan, where I was living at the time. I talked to lots of people who thought maybe if they could just move to a smaller town it would help, but then the people who had gone to the smaller town said it wasn't any different there, because even though their expenses were less they were also making less overall.
Basically there was no silver bullet, no one thing that people hadn't thought of, but rather economic circumstances beyond most people's control. And even though it's frustrating for people to know that, it was also comforting in a way to know that it wasn't just a mistake that they made but that the economy in general had changed.
A few years ago when I started the book, things were tight, but now everyone is talking recession and the same people are being asked to tighten their belts again, but there just aren't any more notches on the belt. These are issues that low-income families have dealt with for a long time, but they're gradually crawling and climbing up the ladder and affecting middle-class families too.
Why is it that so many people who self-identify with the middle class consistently vote against their own economic interests? Or do you think they do?
I think that people aren't aware that they're voting against their economic interests. I think that if you listen to the news media, the issues can come out awfully garbled. I think an important job of the Democratic Party is to really let people know the differences between Republican policies and Democratic policies. [Democrats] have been afraid to do that, because they're afraid to lose the big guy.
Another reason why I think people are afraid either to vote this issue or to even address this issue, is that they're ashamed. They feel like they did something wrong, and they don't want to admit that they're in financial trouble and they don't talk to each other about it. There was a huge amount of relief in the people I talked to when I told them that others were feeling the pinch as well. They would ask me how others were getting by and the answer to that was twofold: people are getting help from their families, or they are getting into a lot of debt. Basically, they're not getting by.
So it's not just that people are living outside their means. We seem to hear that a lot: that people are so extravagant.
And I'm so tired of that. I mean, I understand why it comes up. But actually, we do not spend more discretionary income -- consumer spending is not higher now than it was in the 1970s. We spend differently -- for instance, we spend more on restaurant meals but less on groceries, more on electronics but less on furniture and clothing. When you really boil down the numbers it's the same.
One really critical shift that has happened is that we spend more on fixed expenses than we did in the '70s, things like mortgages, child care bills, health care. If you're having a lean period you can cut back on the clothes or even the groceries. You can't, however, cut back on the mortgage; you have to come up with the money to pay that every single month, which is partly why we have so much debt. The people I talked to weren't taking extravagant vacations to the Bahamas or going on buying binges at Victoria's Secret; they were paying for groceries and medical expenses.
So when you talk about people feeling ashamed to talk about money woes, where does that come from?
We are taught -- men in particular, but both genders -- that if you can't take care of yourself financially it's your fault. If you just had a little more gumption, a little more moxie, and a little more creative thinking, you too could make a million dollars.
You talk about solutions in the form of political reform. What does that look like to you?
Tax reform, absolutely. I'm a big fan of progressive taxation, and if you look at the curve of income inequality in this country, it's kind of like a U, where it was very high in the 1920s and it's very high now, and it was low through the '40s and '50s.
And it was, not coincidentally, low at the time when taxation for the wealthy was at the highest. The wealthy gave more and the less wealthy gave less. To me it's absolutely the most sensible way to have an equitable society.
There is a lot of social science and political commentary in this book. Is there also a call to action in there?
Yes, I think absolutely. We can't just sit here and be resigned to the fact that teachers (for instance) don't make very much money and that's just how it is. Because we need teachers! We need all these jobs! We need a balanced society. We can't all be hedge-fund managers, and we can't just sit around and wait for them -- whoever they are -- to come in and help us either.
In the book you mention the guise of a classless society. Are we a classless society or are we class obsessed in this country?
I would say we're pretty class obsessed. And in terms of class mobility, we are now less mobile than we used to be.
Citizens in the U.S. are less likely to move up or down in class than in a lot of countries that we think we're better off than.
What do you hope people take away from your book?
First, I want them to come away with the feeling that they're not alone in this, it's an issue that is affecting an enormous amount of people and there are real reasons why it's happening, so we can get away from the sense of shame and embarrassment. I hope that people, number one, vote. I want people to push politically for what's important to them, be that health care, family leave, or education. So I hope the book is both an expos