SvD om svensk levnadsstandard 99-08-02
The New York Times - August 1, 1999
The American Middle, Just Getting By
By LOUIS UCHITELLE
CINCINNATI -- Two stately oaks on the front lawn grace the home of Tracey and Carrie Jones, and the front door opens onto a long, carpeted living room with a large fireplace at the far end. The Joneses linger in their living room, pointing out the view from a picture window, before showing a visitor two cramped bedrooms and a kitchen too small for a breakfast table.
The Joneses' single-story ranch house is definitely on the modest side in Madeira, a prosperous Cincinnati suburb. They bought it in 1995 for $132,000 -- the upper end of what they could afford. Their family income of $49,700 puts them, statistically, in the heart of the American middle class. But while Madeira would be an ideal setting for a movie about a middle-class family, the Joneses struggle to feel that they belong.
The robust economy of the last three years has lifted their family fortunes. Jones, 42, who designs machines that label plastic containers, has watched his salary rise 9 percent since 1996, to $43,500. Still, to make ends meet, he mows lawns in his off hours, making an additional $1,700. And Mrs. Jones, 37 and raising two children, provides a crucial extra by earning $4,500 as a part-time bookkeeper for her dentist.
"There are times when I feel comfortable about our lives," she said, "and there are times when I am with my friends -- most of whom are not working because their husbands make more than enough money -- and I wonder, 'What are Tracey and I doing wrong?"'
That a family taking in nearly $50,000 annually does not feel securely in the middle class may be understandable in expensive cities like New York or Los Angeles. But such sentiments are evident in Cincinnati, too, where the cost of living is roughly equal to the national average and the median family income mirrors the nation's. Four middle-income families interviewed at length for this article say they do not think of themselves as middle-income. What looks good on paper does not, for them, translate into an easy life.
"Most people do not have any idea how the median family lives," said Christopher Jencks, a sociologist at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. "The biggest news is how budget-constrained these people really are."
In fact, middle-income families have been stuck in place for a decade, their incomes even losing ground to inflation through part of the 1990s, according to data from the Census Bureau. Only last year did the middle-income family finally make significant progress; the median income rose by more in 1998 than in any year since 1986. Yet, in contrast to earlier generations, these families don't see themselves as sharing in the national bounty. Instead, they wonder why they have to struggle so hard just to pay the bills.
"We have the impression from television and the media that our prosperity is huge, but that is not the middle-class experience," said Marc Miringoff, a Fordham University expert on social indicators and co-author of a new book, "The Social Health of the Nation" (Oxford University Press). "These families have had to work hard for their modest gains."
The median family income is somewhere between $46,500 and $50,000 a year, according to estimates by Census Bureau officials and private economists. (The Census Bureau will publish the exact 1998 figure next month and the 1999 median in September of next year.) That means that half the nation's 71 million families earn more and can afford more than Tracey and Carrie Jones, and half earn less and live in greater hardship.
Clearly, middle-income families in America have acquired more possessions than their parents and grandparents had. But the middle-class comforts of an earlier day were accessible to families with just one earner; today, middle-income families find that they must combine at least two incomes, and often three, in pursuit of a life style that seems always out of reach.
And they work harder each year to earn that income. A married couple with one or two children, for example, worked an average of 3,860 hours -- more than two full-time jobs -- in 1997, up from 3,236 hours in 1979, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Economic Policy Institute. Only 28 percent of the nation's middle-income families scrape by with just one earner, the Census Bureau says, and that is usually because there is only one parent.
What worked for the last generation no longer works for this one. But ask the Cincinnati couples, who range in age from 25 to 65, to compare their lives with those of their parents, and they say that the exercise would not be relevant. Jones' father, for example, made lots of money in a machinery sales business he started at age 55, after struggling most of his adult life as a machinery salesman for others. "I won't accelerate as fast as he finally did," Jones said, "but I'll get there in time."
During the 1980s and early 1990s, when middle-income breadwinners were losing jobs right and left and incomes were stagnating, public opinion polls suggested that for the first time in generations, American families believed that their children would not do as well economically as their parents had. For now, that doubt has faded. While their lives are a constant, precarious struggle, with periodic setbacks, the four families here say they are making progress nevertheless.
"We are in a different time," said Frank Levy, a labor economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We do measure progress against our parents, but not that 'I will be better off at age 30 or 40.' It is, 'Am I going to end up being better off?"'
There are guideposts in this ill-defined journey, the most important being home ownership. All four families own modest homes that were bought for less than $140,000, the average price here. Three are on their second or third homes, having traded up each time. All the houses are air-conditioned, with showcase living rooms, and all are comfortably furnished, however small and cluttered the bedrooms and bathrooms.
Multiple car ownership is another common characteristic, though most of the vehicles were bought secondhand and some now have more than 100,000 miles on them. The families also have small stock portfolios, which have risen in value as the market has climbed, but in their eyes, the holdings are too small to spur spending. They view them instead as savings for retirement or a rainy day.
They all struggle to keep their spending in line with their earnings, showing an aversion to debt that government statisticians say is characteristic of the middle class. In sharp contrast, lower-income families spend far beyond their incomes, according to the consumer expenditure surveys of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Not that families in the middle are averse to spending: The four in Cincinnati are steady shoppers, acquiring, among other things, big double-door refrigerators, radiant-heat stoves, expensive stereo equipment, cherry dining room sets, big-screen TVs, boxes of toys, computers and elaborate outdoor grills. One home even has an in-ground backyard swimming pool with a diving board.
"I think middle-income people have acquired a lot in this recovery," said Douglas Haskell, associate director of the Center for Economic Education at the University of Cincinnati. "But that only seems to accelerate their desire for more."
THE STARTERS: Paying the Price for Home Improvement
he unlikely owners of the backyard pool are Sean Brandyberry, 25, a data manager, and his wife, Tulena, 24. As evangelical Christians, hoping to spend at least some of their time in missionary work, the couple shun material trappings. For them, a rising income is the road to financial independence, not to a home with a backyard pool.
"That is how a lot of people define their lives, by how much they have," Brandyberry said. "I am not saying we are above that thinking. We clearly aren't. But we try not to let it be a conscious force driving our lives."
The pool came with the 30-year-old, two-story, four-bedroom home in Springfield Township that they acquired last year for $65,000 in an estate sale. The pool was filled with weeds and dirt, the house rundown. "I thought I would fix it up and sell it at a profit," Brandyberry said. But with two infants, and three more children planned, his wife wanted bigger quarters than the two-family duplex in which they had lived the previous 18 months, occupying one apartment and renting out the other. So they moved into the new house themselves.
A few months later, this past June, the Brandyberrys became a middle-income family, when Brandyberry asked for a raise and got a big one -- to $34,600 from $29,200. He works for Kendle International Inc., a rapidly growing company based in Cincinnati that specializes in auditing doctors who test new drugs for pharmaceutical companies. His college degree was in religion; he even spent his junior year analyzing the Bible at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But he had done well in math and science, and, having married before graduation, he tapped those skills to make a living, joining Kendle in late 1996 as a data processor.
While Brandyberry's salary alone is well below the median family income, he and his wife have kept their duplex and rent the apartments, adding $2,400 to their net income. Mrs. Brandyberry, trained in accounting, gets the family the rest of the way, earning $12,000 by auditing Kendle expense accounts at home.
Their total income, then, is $49,000. Their mortgage debt is $131,000, at 7 percent, and they owe $3,000 on a school loan. "What we have in income is what God intended us to have," Brandyberry said, "and we have a responsibility to be good stewards of what he has given us."
That means saving. But for all of their effort to do so, much of the young couple's cash reserve has gone into fixing up the house with touches like a new sliding glass door from the kitchen to the backyard and, most expensive of all, a new pump and other equipment for the pool.
In his day, Brandyberry's father had a similar fast start after college, joining the booming retail industry and working for more than 20 years as an assistant store manager for J.C. Penney, only to be laid off three years ago. He is working again as a retail store executive, but without regaining his old status or income.
Could that happen to the son? Brandyberry sees growth and promise in the pharmaceutical industry, and he tells that to his father, who replies that he had the same confidence in retailing when he was young. "That is why I want to be financially independent," the son said.
Right now, however, the Brandyberrys are stuck on the spending treadmill. Their only car is a 1992 Honda Civic that Brandyberry drives to work; it has 125,000 miles on it. They plan to buy a used minivan for Mrs. Brandyberry -- yet another expense.
"We feel we need something bigger for the two kids," Brandyberry said. "I guess need is a strong word. We would like a minivan as the second car."
THE STRUGGLERS: Wishes Deferred And Plans Unmet
hen the Fraziers -- Carl, 65, and his wife, Geraldine, 54 -- imagine the good life, they think of the vacation they take almost every year in a $400-a-week condo in Fort Myers, Fla. "The sand is so white," Frazier said. "You are sitting on the porch, looking out over the bay. All you have to do is change your bathing suit once in a while."
The Fraziers have a slightly greater annual income than the typical family -- more than $50,000 a year -- yet in their own perception, life has been hard. They are the only couple of the four still living in their original home -- a single-story, three-bedroom brick house in the northwestern part of Cincinnati. They bought it for $19,500 in 1971, the year they married. The long stay was not Frazier's intention.
"My original plan was to use this house as a stepping stone," he said. "I was a real estate broker then, and I got this house on a repossession. Segregation, as far as home-buying was concerned, was winding down, and there were good houses available. I was going to upgrade my neighborhood."
The civil rights movement, however, diverted him. Frazier worked at General Electric's big jet aircraft engine plant in Cincinnati. After service in the Navy, he went to night school for four years, earning a degree as a specialist in electrical power. And GE picked him as the first black to work in technical publications, writing manuals and other material about the engines.
But some of his new office colleagues resisted his presence, Frazier said, refusing for a while to break him in on the job. Dealing with that absorbed his energy and blunted his progress. Racial tension at a public school affected one of the four children in the Frazier household, eating up their attention and energy.
"I was spreading myself too thin," Frazier said. "I lost my focus on my plan."
The Fraziers today contribute roughly equal amounts to the family's income. Mrs. Frazier, a secretary at the University of Cincinnati, brings home $28,500 a year in a job that also offers group health insurance. Frazier found himself forced into retirement in 1995 as GE downsized. His Social Security and company pension total $12,000 a year, and he works a few hours a day at a YMCA for $11,000 more. And Mrs. Frazier signed on for night work with H & R Block during tax season, earning $800, so their income this year will be just over $52,000.
But there are debts -- and desires. Years ago, the Fraziers got in over their heads in credit card spending, and when Frazier retired they still owed more than $6,000. His severance package and a $35,000 home equity loan, at 7 percent, got their finances in order and allowed the purchase of a minivan and central air-conditioning, along with a dining room table, a living room sofa and stereo equipment (bought at a garage sale).
Frazier has discovered the interest-free 90-day payment plan and has used it for several recent purchases, including a dining room sideboard and an elaborate outdoor grill. But there are more needs, including a car for Mrs. Frazier to drive to work and various home repairs that Frazier is resisting. Having avoided new credit card debt, except for a small balance from this year's vacation, he wants to wait until the home equity loan is paid off, at $700 a month for three more years.
That is hard on Mrs. Frazier. "I want my house set, so that when I come to it I have it the way I want it," she said. "But if we make a wrong move, the pressure we had from the bills will come back, and that is painful."
THE BUILDERS: Dogged Saving And Some Luxuries
overnment jobs lift tens of thousands of families into the middle class, offering them a security that the Fraziers do not feel. Gian Nguyen, 51, a Vietnamese immigrant, has taken this route, partly in response to his early hardships in this country. A Navy lieutenant in South Vietnam who had studied there to teach high school math and science, he found himself in America in the late 1970s working as a minimum-wage laborer.
Today, Nguyen's $44,500 salary as an engineer for Cincinnati's Metropolitan Sewer District doesn't quite bring the family to the national median. But his wife, Kim, 41, also from Vietnam, opened a nail salon two years ago that has finally turned a profit, netting $4,000 so far this year. The shop's success is so important to them that Nguyen has obtained a license in nail care, so that he can help out in his off hours.
"Whenever she has three or four customers, she calls me, and I run right over," said Nguyen, who gets home from his city job by 3 p.m. The salon's specialty is false nails, a booming business these days, but there are so many competing salons that Mrs. Nguyen has dropped her price for a set to $25, from $30.
Nguyen, who earned an engineering degree from Wright State University in Dayton in the mid-1980s, is bent on building up the family fortunes. Consumer spending does not have as much appeal for the Nguyens as it does for many native-born Americans, he and his wife say, although their son and daughter, both born in the United States, are moving in that direction. How much does the family save? "He makes $2,000 and we save $1,800," Mrs. Nguyen said. He corrected her. "It's $1,200," he said.
Mrs. Nguyen explained how they manage: "We don't go out to eat. We don't travel. We buy clothes on sale."
"This dress I'm wearing," she said (it is a long black cotton garment with a white flower design), "cost $10."
The Nguyens, who married in 1981, are on their third house, a single-story, three-bedroom brick home in Norwood bought in 1995 for $113,000. Their $25,000 mortgage is paid off, Nguyen said. He and his wife have no credit cards. Their 16-year-old daughter, Alice, making $100 a week at a summer job, turns over $70 to her mother to save. Their stock holdings, which they value at roughly $100,000, are regarded as a retirement nest egg.
The Nguyens have embraced the ways of middle-income American families. They receive a visitor in a thickly carpeted, comfortably furnished living room. Their kitchen has all the modern appliances, including a refrigerator with water and ice spigots on the door. Three cars are parked outside. The master bedroom features a four-poster bed and flowered sheets.
"We don't want a bigger house," Nguyen said, "but we would like a newer house."
THE STRIVERS: Goals That Remain Just Out of Sight
iving among neighbors who have more possessions than they do, Tracey and Carrie Jones wonder if they will ever close the gap.
After years of procrastination, as Jones puts it, he received a two-year degree in mechanical engineering technology in 1993, so that he could compete more effectively against unemployed engineers seeking machinery design work. He had been laid off himself in the early 1990's and worked as a temporary employee for up to $19 an hour before landing his current job at Superior Machine Systems in 1996.
Carrie Jones dropped out of college, where she had studied nursing partly to please her father, a doctor. Only later, while working for a savings and loan association and then Fifth Third Bank, did she realize that accounting was her true calling.
She went to a part-time work schedule after her second child was born in 1994, working enough hours to provide benefits for the family until her husband landed at Superior Machine Systems. The rising cost of child care persuaded her to switch to the bookkeeping job for her dentist on a more flexible schedule, though at less than half the pay.
"I was making $11,000 at the bank and paying the woman who cared for my children $4,500, and I did not feel that was worth it, being away from my kids," she said.
But there are sacrifices. The Joneses have just taken on a $10,000 home equity loan to buy a used car. And there are stressful moments with acquaintances who are in better financial shape. Mrs. Jones remembered driving with a friend who was talking about remodeling and enlarging her kitchen. "And I thought to myself: 'Isn't it big enough? It's plenty big now,"' she recalled. "She asked me a couple of months ago when were we going to upgrade our kitchen, and I said my kitchen was big enough."