Bankrupting the Middle Class

Financial Justice Ideas and Issues

New Orleans: Looking at the increasing stratification apparent in higher education leads one inexorably to the fact that even as poor and working families are locked out of a better future, many middle class families are falling rapidly on the slippery economic slope. 

 Statistics included in several articles recently in The American Prospect made this point in some alarming ways.  Among them were these:

  • In 2004 more families with children will file for bankruptcy than divorce. By most standards of measurement, these families that are busting out would have been considered solidly middle class.
  • A family with children is now 75% more likely to be late on credit card payments than a family with no children.
  • Home foreclosures have tripled in less than 25 years and – you guessed it – families with children are more likely to lose the roof over their heads.
  • Economists estimate that for every family filing officially in bankruptcy court, another seven (7) should have done so.

The authors of these notes, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, are hopefully sisters, which would at least say something good about families!  Underlying their point was the fact that one of the critical drivers for the economic misfortunes of families in contemporary society is the increased cost of education – even so-called public education.  They make a compelling case by adding the cost of pre-school education (not provided publicly in most locales); the hidden costs of buying houses outside income ranges in order to located near the “best” schools; and, then having to finance college educations by hook or crook, which have soared phenomenally when compared to other increases including those involving wages.  No wonder these families are falling below the financial waterline.

This has to be a classic paradigm of a rat race on a quick turning wheel.  Families believe in education as the way up and out.  They do everything they can to get ahead, including betting the “ranch” in many cases on the future – and the gamble is increasingly losing.

And, here’s the bitter harvest. 

First, as we saw the educational wealth gap has increased, so even if they get jane or junior in the fancy school, the misery is not going to find much company, among the increasing rich and wellborn. 

And, worse, despite the depth of the worldwide ideology of education being the surest ticket to success, it turns out that is also a cruel illusion.  A study by American University’s Thomas Hertz finds that “only 7 percent of those born into the bottom economic fifth make it to the top fifth as adults, while about 40 percent stay in the lower fifth like their parents.” 

So, gotcha!  1 of every 14 or so is ever going to crawl up the economic ladder to the top while about an equal number will make it up a couple of rungs perhaps and their places will be filled by others from the middle class who are as likely to move down these days, as to move up.

There’s a country song that used to ask, “How do you get someone like that to vote Democrat?”  God knows, but however these middle income families are voting, it sure as heck isn’t working out too well for them or anybody else.