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Susan Wozniak: Whither the middle class?

“No one runs an elevator today, but a man who earns at that level has a working wife and they cannot afford private music lessons for their daughter,” I added.

“And,” Jean continued, “a kid today, selling $90 sneakers at the mall has to make a choice between owning a car but living with his parents or living with five friends in a flat and taking public transportation.”

I wondered why the same work was devalued today. Why couldn’t a person make a comfortable living, selling shoes in the 1990s the way a person once could?

It was a question I asked several times until I happened upon a chart created by the Bureau of the Census which showed that 80 percent of the American work force saw no real rise in buying power since 1979. The top quintile was another story.

I finished a graduate degree in 1998, along with other Baby Boom women, generally divorced, who looked to return to the world of work after raising children. We loved graduate school. It was, after all, somewhat like Marilyn French’s novel, “The Women’s Room.” However, life after graduation was not as promised. More education did not mean better job opportunities and the economy that was strong at the end of the 1990s began to wither.

At least one pundit noted that while there were enough jobs in Massachusetts, they were poorly paying jobs in the service sector.

I joined an online group of female Baby Boomers who called themselves The Crones. They, along with women I shared potluck suppers with in grad school, largely agreed that we were no longer part of the middle class. There was a single dissenter among the Crones who felt that the middle class was an attitude. Even if you lived on pasta and friend eggs, you were middle class if you felt you were.

Our dissenter’s statement somewhat agrees with the definition that the Middle Class Task Force, chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, devised two years ago. The middle class is more a matter of aspiration than income. But can you “aspire” your way in?

I know a young man who stopped taking college classes. “I’d continue if I knew I would have a job when I graduated,” he said. He discovered his intellect during his journey through two years of college. An avid reader, he can discuss what he reads with acumen and sophistication. It would be a shame if he did not finish his degree, but what if that degree kept him from being gainfully employed?

What if money does define the middle class? Both recent presidential candidates defined the middle class as having a family income up to $250,000. The Census Bureau calculated the median income of a man who works full-time all year at $50,000 in 2011. Women fared less well, with a median income between $33,437 and $35,102.

What then about that $250,000 familial income? Of the 116,011,000 families residing here in 2006, less than 2 percent could claim an annual combined income of a quarter million dollars. Slightly more than 12 percent fell below the official poverty level.

After World War II, when the couples whose lives had come up in my conversation with Jean were raising children, incomes rose steadily. People across all levels of society became more equal. For some reason, however, that equality began to shrivel and recede during the 1970s.

Perhaps it was due to manufacturing moving overseas. Perhaps it was because talking heads on programs like “Wall Street Week” touted the coming service economy. Certainly fewer jobs, even those requiring degrees, met C. Wright Mills’ 1951 definition of a middle-class work as involving “conceptualizing, creating and consulting.” Perhaps, the answer is that those at the top of the income heap, the ultimate 5 percent, hold nearly one-quarter of the nation’s resources. Equality has slipped through our fingers.

Yet, despite more people working in the service economy, the service economy is less respected. A man in his 40s recently noted that customers complain about the death of service. But there is a reason for that, he said. “In the ’40s and ’50s, people worked for companies all their lives and were paid a living wage. You could make a living at a department store. You cannot now.”

Susan Wozniak is a freelance writer who lives in Easthampton.

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