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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Brownstein: Dream of a Comfortable Middle Class Life is Fading

Ronald Brownstein’s National Journal post “Being In the Middle Class Means Worrying About Falling Behind” reports on a new “Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll exploring the public’s perception of what it means to be middle class in America today.” Brownstein explains:

…Fully 56 percent of those surveyed said they believe they will eventually climb to a higher rung on the economic ladder than they occupy now. But even more said they worry about falling into a lower economic class sometime in the next few years. Reaffirming the results in earlier Heartland Monitor polls, most of those surveyed said the middle class today enjoys less opportunity, job security, and disposable income than earlier generations did. And strikingly small percentages of American adults said they consider it “very realistic” that they can meet such basic financial goals as paying for their children’s college, retiring comfortably, or saving “enough money to … deal with a health emergency or job loss.”

In addition to this bleak prognosis, Brownstein notes that the perception of what defines a decent middle class life has headed south: “Asked to define what it means to be middle class, a solid 54 percent majority of respondents picked “having the ability to keep up with expenses and hold a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt”; a smaller percentage defined it in terms of getting ahead and accumulating savings.”
Looking toward the future, the respondents are less than optimistic:”The share of Americans who say the country is on the right track reached a four-year high of 41 percent in the Heartland Monitor survey conducted just after his victory in November. But that optimism plummeted in the latest survey to less than three in 10. The number of people who expect the economy to improve over the next year also skidded.” He adds that “the results highlight how much economic anxiety and political alienation still shadow daily life, even after the blackest clouds of the Great Recession have lifted.”
The poll includes some interesting data on class self-perception:

Asked to define their class status on a 5-point scale, just 2 percent identified themselves as upper class and 12 percent as upper-middle class. More respondents placed themselves below the middle: 12 percent said they were lower class, and 26 percent called themselves lower-middle class. By far the largest group–46 percent–self-identified as middle class…Whites were twice as likely as minorities to say their children would settle in the lower class or lower-middle class and slightly more likely to predict they would reach the middle class. These somber sentiments, as in the earlier Heartland surveys, differed surprisingly little between whites with and without four-year college degrees.

Despite pessimism about the economy, many respondents retained a healthy optimism about their personal future, as Brownstein explains,

…Overall, 56 percent of those surveyed said they thought it very or somewhat likely they would reach “a higher class at some point” in their lives. Just 42 percent thought it unlikely they would climb. Optimism is even more common among Americans of working age; more than four-fifths of adults under 30, more than two-thirds of those in their 30s, and just over three-fifths of people in their 40s think they will rise, compared to much smaller proportions of seniors and workers soon to retire.
But once again, the racial divide was substantial. Almost three-fourths of minorities said they considered it likely they would rise; whites, though, split exactly in half, with little difference between those with or without a college degree.

Yet, even underlying this basic optimism, “Fully 59 percent of respondents voiced concern “about falling out of [their] current economic class over the next few years,” including 28 percent who were “very” concerned. Only 40 percent said they weren’t concerned about losing ground.” Much of the anxiety centered around fear of losing jobs and/or health insurance and the data shows lots of worry about paying for their children’s a college education and quality of retirement.
Nearly all of the extensive data in the survey affirms Brownwstein’s contention that “most families now believe the most valuable–and elusive–possession in American life isn’t any tangible acquisition, such as a house or a car, but rather economic security.” It’s not enough that Republicans have demonstrated their utter incompetence in helping to foster broadly-shared economic security. Somehow, the Democratic Party has got to persuade a healthy majority that our candidates offer the best hope for creating policies that can support their aspirations.

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