The rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer, the politicians and pundits tell us every evening on the news. Lost in the rhetoric is any concern for members of the middle class, who are in danger of becoming nothing more than a footnote in future histories of the United States.
If England was once a nation of shopkeepers, the United States, in the mid-20th century, was a nation of small businessmen and white-collar workers—all, in their own way, decidedly middle class. Many in the working class, too, strove to afford the comforts of a middle-class lifestyle—and, even if they would never enter the middle class themselves, America’s prosperity and educational opportunities held out the promise that their children might leave the working class behind.
To that end, they provided a home and schooling for growing families and looked forward to the day when they would make the final payment on their mortgage, followed a few years later by retirement, a gold watch, pension payments, and days of traveling and doting on grandchildren.
The fact that we cannot read such a description today without thinking it a wild oversimplification, even a caricature, tells us more about the decline of the prospects of the working class than all of the facts and figures economists and politicians can muster. Still, a few of those figures do fill out the picture. According to the...