Many Americans are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to becoming thriving members of a middle class.
Study after study shows the American middle class has been shrinking, forcing more and more people into a reliance either on sub-standard wages or dead-end jobs. There are many reasons for middle-class shrinkage: a more or less stagnant economy since the virtual financial collapse of five years ago; a lopsided economic recovery in which the top 1 percent of wealthy people and corporations gained about 30 percent in income compared to 0.4 percent for the lowest-income Americans; fierce competition for available jobs (even entry-level ones); increases in the costs of necessities such as gasoline, groceries and health care; and – last but not least – the escalating costs of post-secondary education.
For success in life, a high-school diploma was always vital for most people. Nowadays, partly because of the scrambling competition for all jobs, some employers require a college diploma even for jobs that never before needed one. In the “good old days” of the 1950s and 1960s, many people (mainly men at that time) earned enough in flourishing factory jobs to support their families in a comfortable lifestyle. All it took was a high-school diploma and a willingness to work diligently. Those “good old days” are sadly, for the most part, gone with the wind.
As a college degree becomes the “new” high-school diploma, there is relentless pressure on young people (not to mention many older ones) to get post-secondary education. Such education and skill-enhancements are almost always good ideas and big employment pluses. In fact, post high-school education nowadays is the single most important factor for advancement within a middle class or above.
However, a college education has become so expensive many people find themselves saddled with decades of loan debt. It’s estimated college-loan debt nationally totals about $1 trillion, a truly frightening amount. And college costs keep rising.
The “American Dream” has long been the envy of the world. Even the communist theorist Karl Marx said in mid-1800s he was impressed by the rise of the American middle class and predicted a proletarian revolution could not happen as long as a thriving middle class remained a reality in the United States.
The factors causing a shrinking middle class will not be easily solved, as complicated and inter-related as they are. The “old-fashioned” stepping stones to success (hard work, innovation, flexibility, personal responsibility, education, skills enhancement) are still the prime requisites. However, the right conditions must exist for those qualities to flourish, and those conditions include access to opportunities, including affordability of post high-school education options. Many people, including political leaders and educators, are brainstorming on that very problem. Let’s hope they make progress and let’s all help keep such issues on the front burner.