Mysteries of the Middle Class

Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream

by Katherine S. Newman
Basic Books, 257 pp., $23.00

Silent Depression: The Fate of the American Dream

by Wallace G. Peterson
Norton, 320 pp., $23.00

The Good Society

by Robert Bellah, by Richard Madsen, by William M. Sullivan, by Ann Swidler, by Steven M. Tipton
Vintage, 347 pp., $13.00 (paper)

Rising in the West: The True Story of an ‘Okie’ Family from the Great Depression Through the Reagan Years

by Dan Morgan
Knopf, 532 pp., $25.00

For a long time after World War II the middle-class American family, consisting of a working husband, a housewife, and their children, seemed to be moving on a steady, upward economic course. But in the early 1970s, at about the time of the OPEC embargo, family income leveled off. Partly to maintain their standard of living while inflation was high and earnings were stagnant, millions of married women went to work. In 1970, in 40 percent of families both husband and wife worked. By 1990, the percentage had increased to 60. Women began to marry later: 62.5 percent of women in their early twenties were already married in 1975, but only 38.5 percent in 1990. Birth rates fell. There were more divorces: for every 1,000 who were married in 1970 there were only 47 who were divorced, while in 1990 there were 152. Seventy percent of households in 1970 included a married couple; twenty years later the percentage had dropped to 56.

Recent government statistics tell us that this process may have run its course. The divorce rate seems to have peaked and to be modestly declining; economic productivity is rising slightly. Yet we are still reacting to the dramatic changes in American family life of the 1970s and 1980s. These changes were, of course, central to the 1992 presidential campaign: Dan Quayle’s attacks on single motherhood and Bill Clinton’s promises to provide working families with increased economic support while ending “welfare as we know it” are only two instances, and politicians lamenting the decline of the middle class—Pat Buchanan, Paul Tsongas, Ross Perot—did far better than had been expected. Clinton himself, albeit more cheerfully, also ran on the theme that something had gone wrong in the lives of middle-class Americans.

To set Clinton’s inaugural address next to John Kennedy’s, which it was plainly intended to echo, is instructive. The language in Kennedy’s speech is active, optimistic, forward-looking; words like “new” and “begin” occur frequently. Clinton’s address looks back: we must “renew,” be “reborn,” “reinvent,” “revitalize,” “rebuild,” and “rededicate” ourselves, the implication being that the best future imaginable would be one that repeats the past. Compared to Kennedy’s broad, outward-looking rhetoric (“Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce”), Clinton’s is inward, his mission one of healing a sick nation: “We have drifted, and that drifting has eroded our resources, fractured our economy and shaken our confidence.”

Of course the middle class in America is well off by the standards of the rest of the world, and its economic condition, in spite of widespread reports of layoffs in white-collar jobs, the menacing federal deficit, bad schools, neighborhood violence, and the economic might of the Japanese, hasn’t deteriorated as drastically as that of the working class or the poor. Perhaps what makes the middle class seem so imperiled today is that the buoyant …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.