The typical American family today has less wealth than the typical American family of the 1980s.
from The Nation by Michelle Chen
We feel... "a massive sense of loss: real economic loss, perceived cultural loss, and anticipatory loss for their children’s generation. Just how “real” this decline actually has been, however, depends on where you stand, and where you’re falling from.
A recent study of stratification and eroding quality of life across generations, between races, and between socioeconomic classes sheds light on how America’s so-called “middle class” perceives itself.
Social-inequality trends over the past half century indicate that class divisions are growing more rigid, most are getting worse off, and those at the bottom are falling further, faster by the day. It’s the momentum of change that is causing much of the pain and anxiety, as many self-identified “middle-class Americans” are realizing the truth only now: They were never as well-off as they thought they were.
“Overall, if you look back 30 years, most of the distribution [of wealth] is lower than where it was in the ’80s. So…the typical American family today has less wealth than the typical American family in the ’80s,” says University of Michigan sociologist Fabian Pfeffer, who co-published a new research collection on trends in inequality. And yet, Pfeffer observes, higher on the economic hierarchy, affluent households experienced “the mirror image,” accruing riches and power at others’ expense.
For households losing wealth, Pfeffer found that social insecurity hurts from many different angles: not just in the evaporation of housing and retirement wealth but also through declining health, diminished prospects for their kids, and ensuing despair and anger.
“One of the things wealth gives you is safety and security,” Pfeffer says, but when insecurity becomes chronic “as labor markets become more insecure…and as public safety nets become more porous…that role of private safety nets, such as in the form of wealth, may become even more pronounced.”
Take the case of a working-class, jobless white youth in a marginal postindustrial suburb. He hovers in the same social status as his blue-collar parents, but his life is markedly harder than theirs were. He is priced out of higher education in a community with few living-wage jobs and has virtually none of the health or retirement benefits his parents attained through their now-vanished industrial vocations.
But white anxiety about middle-class precarity is only part of the picture because the middle-class was always built on structural inequality and social exclusion. The anxiety Trump manipulated so deftly on the campaign trail expresses real agony that working people are feeling. Yet the people who aren’t represented in Trump’s support base are in many ways suffering the most from long-term economic polarization.
Compared to whites, the downward trajectory has been steeper in communities of color. A typical low-income black kid has even dimmer college prospects, having been deprived of early education and decent housing and health care from birth. She grows up with greater exposure to traumas like mass incarceration or foreclosure. Racial discrimination limits her career opportunities and she moves from teenage poverty into inescapable, lifelong debt after getting hit by predatory lenders. While her parents were also poor, they benefited from public welfare and education programs, and retired with modest savings instead of an underwater mortgage.
Towering high above both these young people is the affluent white youth who inherits her parents’ educational advantages, graduates debt-free, and has the social capital that accrues over her formative years spent in a privileged community network. Her segment of society is pulling away from both low-income black and white communities.
Pfeffer’s analysis shows that “the probability of becoming part of the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans is seven times greater if your parents were also in the top 20 percent [of income earners] instead of the bottom.” And social mobility could decline further in the coming years. This is in part perhaps why Trump was able to win votes with his vision of restoring “greatness,” but such a restoration is a return to a fundamentally unfair social structure built on a zero-sum economy that has been cratering on itself for decades.
Such political polarization can poison democracy. As Princeton economist Angus Deaton contended, since economic elites are inclined to push policies that impoverish public social infrastructure and distribute wealth upward on the income scale (and into their pockets), the political system becomes increasingly undemocratic—and plutocracy becomes even more entrenched.
The 50-year trajectory of class polarization isn’t likely to end anytime soon. A political solution probably isn’t forthcoming under Trump’s impending reign of chaos. But for the rising generation, there may be some promise in the debate around rebuilding “infrastructure.” Rather than roads and bridges, however, a more radical approach would develop our social infrastructure. An emphasis on social programs that would directly benefit people’s lives could be a redistributive, comprehensive corrective for the wealth gap, and would carry real populist appeal.
“The one public infrastructure that I see as the most in need of public investment is education,” Pfeffer says, “and that is also because the private investment [has grown] more unequal, partly thanks to this growth in the wealth gap.”
from RollingStone... Every night around nine, Janis Adkins falls asleep in the back of her Toyota Sienna van in a church parking lot at the edge of Santa Barbara, California. On the van's roof is a black Yakima SpaceBooster, full of previous-life belongings like a snorkel and fins and camping gear. Adkins, who is 56 years old, parks the van at the lot's remotest corner, aligning its side with a row of dense, shading avocado trees. The trees provide privacy, but they are also useful because she can pick their fallen fruit, and she doesn't always have enough to eat. Despite a continuous, two-year job search, she remains without dependable work. She says she doesn't need to eat much – if she gets a decent hot meal in the morning, she can get by for the rest of the day on a piece of fruit or bulk-purchased almonds – but food stamps supply only a fraction of her nutritional needs, so foraging opportunities are welcome.
Prior to the Great Recession, Adkins owned and ran a successful plant nursery in Moab, Utah. At its peak, it was grossing $300,000 a year. She had never before been unemployed – she'd worked for 40 years, through three major recessions. During her first year of unemployment, in 2010, she wrote three or four cover letters a day, five days a week. Now, to keep her mind occupied when she's not looking for work or doing odd jobs, she volunteers at an animal shelter called the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network. ("I always ask for the most physically hard jobs just to get out my frustration," she says.) She has permission to pick fruit directly from the branches of the shelter's orange and avocado trees. Another benefit is that when she scrambles eggs to hand-feed wounded seabirds, she can surreptitiously make a dish for herself.
By the time Adkins goes to bed – early, because she has to get up soon after sunrise, before parishioners or church employees arrive – the four other people who overnight in the lot have usually settled in: a single mother who lives in a van with her two teenage children and keeps assiduously to herself, and a wrathful, mentally unstable woman in an old Mercedes sedan whom Adkins avoids. By mutual unspoken agreement, the three women park in the same spots every night, keeping a minimum distance from each other. When you live in your car in a parking lot, you value any reliable area of enclosing stillness. "You get very territorial," Adkins says.
Each evening, 150 people in 113 vehicles spend the night in 23 parking lots in Santa Barbara. The lots are part of Safe Parking, a program that offers overnight permits to people living in their vehicles. The nonprofit that runs the program, New Beginnings Counseling Center, requires participants to have a valid driver's license and current registration and insurance. The number of vehicles per lot ranges from one to 15, and lot hours are generally from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Fraternization among those who sleep in the lots is implicitly discouraged – the fainter the program's presence, the less likely it will provoke complaints from neighboring homes and churches and businesses.
The Safe Parking program is not the product of a benevolent government. Santa Barbara's mild climate and sheltered beachfront have long attracted the homeless, and the city has sometimes responded with punitive measures. (An appeals court compared one city ordinance forbidding overnight RV parking to anti-Okie laws in the 1930s.) To aid Santa Barbara's large homeless population, local activists launched the Safe Parking program in 2003. But since the Great Recession began, the number of lots and participants in the program has doubled. By 2009, formerly middle-class people like Janis Adkins had begun turning up – teachers and computer repairmen and yoga instructors seeking refuge in the city's parking lots. Safe-parking programs in other cities have experienced a similar influx of middle-class exiles, and their numbers are not expected to decrease anytime soon. It can take years for unemployed workers from the middle class to burn through their resources – savings, credit, salable belongings, home equity, loans from family and friends. Some 5.4 million Americans have been without work for at least six months, and an estimated 750,000 of them are completely broke or heading inexorably toward destitution. In California, where unemployment remains at 11 percent, middle-class refugees like Janis Adkins are only the earliest arrivals. "She's the tip of the iceberg," says Nancy Kapp, the coordinator of the Safe Parking program. "There are many people out there who haven't hit bottom yet, but they're on their way – they're on their way."
Kapp, who was herself homeless for a time many years ago, is blunt, indefatigable, raptly empathetic. She works out of a minuscule office in the Salvation Army building in downtown Santa Barbara. On the wall is a map encompassing the program's parking lots – a vivid graphic of the fall of the middle class. Kapp expects more disoriented, newly impoverished families to request spots in the Safe Parking program this year, and next year, and the year after that.
"When you come to me, you've hit rock bottom," Kapp says. "You've already done everything you possibly could to avoid being homeless. You maybe have a teeny bit of savings left. People are crying, they're saying, 'I've never experienced this before. I've never been homeless.' They don't want to mix with homeless people. They're like, 'I'm not going over to those people' – sometimes they call them 'those people.' So now they're lost, they're humiliated, they're rejected, they're scared, and they're very ashamed. I'm worried about the psychological damage it does when you have a place and then, all of a sudden, you're in your car. You have to be depressed just from the fall itself, from losing everything and not understanding how it could happen."
Trump found support among people who supposedly lacked formal education. Yet they keenly understood how it felt to be cheated by the system. The blame for middle-class decline, however, which should be aimed at the top, was tragically misdirected at others on the bottom, whom Trump and right-wing media inaccurately portrayed as having an unfair advantage. Overall, a huge chunk of the country is sliding down; some have just been slipping a little faster in recent years. The more crowded it gets on the bottom rung, the harder it is to see those climbing at the top and leaving the rest of us behind.