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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

1.

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;1 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 years between the end of World II and the 1970s are being used as a point of comparison. Isabel Sawhill and Mark Condon of the Urban Institute calculated last year that if economic productivity had grown as rapidly between 1973 and 1990 as it did from 1948 to 1973, the average family’s income today would be 35 percent higher than it is now.2 Many members of the middle class became middle class only a generation or two ago, thanks precisely to the post-World War II boom—in polls, only 37 percent of Americans identified themselves as middle class in 1952, and only 44 percent in 1964. Today more than 80 percent do. The newness of the status only makes the possibility of slipping back to the socio-economic status of one’s immigrant or Okie grandparents seem greater and more frightening.

Katherine Newman’s Declining Fortunes is largely a straightforward account of the anxiety of the middle class as it confronts its current domestic and economic uncertainty—and, perhaps more keenly, the pain of unmet expectations. Newman, a social anthropologist, spent two years interviewing people in a suburban town in New Jersey that she calls “Pleasanton” (Teaneck? Leonia? Englewood? Academic convention keeps her from using its real name.) The book aspires to the universality of Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown—Newman calls Pleasanton “a town the likes of which could be found in almost any state of the union”—but doesn’t attempt to provide an exhaustive catalog of the town’s social structure as the Lynds did. Instead Newman uses the material of her interviews to describe the different attitudes of two generations living there: the “children of the post—World War II economic boom” who “entered adulthood in an era of economic uncertainty, where news of shuttered factories, bankruptcies, junkbond nightmares, and white-collar unemployment is the stuff of daily headlines,” and “the generation that entered adulthood in the affluent years following World War II,” to whom “opportunity seemed limitless.”

The resolutely non-quantitative nature of her research, the location near New York City, and the emphasis on the differences between generations all contribute to a point of view whose broad outlines will be familiar to anyone who reads the weeklies or watches network news. (Some of the language will be familiar, too: Newman has a weakness for phrases like “the tumultuous era that has come to be known as the Sixties.”)

The World War II generation, in Newman’s view, had a lucky history. Substantially helped by government programs like the GI Bill, Veterans’ Administration loans, and the home mortgage interest deduction, many left the urban enclaves where they had grown up, married young, went to college, got white-collar jobs, and moved to the suburbs. They had large families, but they were doing so well economically that mothers were able to leave the work force and spend full time with their children.

The next generation, the “baby boomers” (a phrase Newman uses to grating excess), born during the late Forties and Fifties, grew up thinking that they would automatically inherit their parents’ prosperity. Instead, they were surprised to find economic conditions deteriorating as they came of age. As Newman puts it:

Four related phenomena typically crop up when they explain the erosion of their slice of the American dream: escalating housing prices, occupational insecurity, blocked mobility on the job, and the cost-of-living squeeze that has penalized the boomer generation, even when they have more education and better jobs than their parents.

The result is that the younger generation, and presumably the generations succeeding them, have “ever declining prospects of social mobility.” (In the literature of the generation now in their twenties, one hears the complaint that they are being relegated to dead-end jobs, while the generation just ahead of them are hanging onto the good ones.) Many members of the World War II generation had de facto tenure in white-collar jobs: now executives are being laid off even at the largest corporations. Among younger couples, both husband and wife work, and even then they can’t match the standard of living of their single-earner parents; some are finding that “children are a luxury that will be hard to afford.” According to a report by the National Commission on Children, which Newman cites, the cost of housing nationally went from 28 percent of the average family’s budget in 1970 to 44 percent in 1990. Many of the people who grew up in Pleasanton have found they can’t afford to live there as adults. Newman somewhat melodramatically writes:

The experience of downward mobility is terrifying. The economic experience of the late 1980s and early 1990s is a recipe for frustration, envy, fury, and a growing sense of helplessness. No amount of waiting,…no amount of hard work is going to make it possible for these young boomers to lay claim to their birthright.

Newman touches lightly on the larger issues underlying the situation she describes—mentioning, for example, the national debt and the quality of education and health care—but she doesn’t attempt to identify the causes of the baby boomers’ disaffection or propose ways to solve it. She assumes that the economic conditions of the 1950s are impossible to recapture, and that the best we can do is adjust, by reducing our expectations. “Sympathy is in order,” she says, for the disappointed generation—rather than admonitions against self-pity, as they often get from their parents. She would like us to adopt an ethic of “social responsibility,” as opposed to the pursuit of individual gain. This would mean more social spending (presumably on child-care allowances, unemployment insurance, and health insurance) to cushion the economy’s blows, as well as more mutual respect and understanding between those who are doing well and those who aren’t.

Declining Fortunes is commonsensical, sympathetic, and based on fieldwork at a time when most academic research on social mobility consists of computer-generated multiple-regression analyses of census and survey data. Having been in the field, Newman can pick up nuances that statistics wouldn’t have yielded, such as the tension between working and nonworking mothers and between highly educated professionals, who are doing relatively well, and the rest of the white-collar population, who aren’t.

But her method has serious short-comings. The main benefit of fieldwork is the richness of detail and sense of character it can yield, but since Newman disguises the identities of her subjects, they emerge only as talking heads. What they say is often interesting, but they are not individually memorable. On the other hand, dull as a statistical work on the same subject might be, it would have to answer precise questions that Newman doesn’t raise: Is her account peculiar to the Northeast, or typical of suburban conditions across the country (which, according to the 1990 census, is 47.5 percent suburban)? What is the real extent today of downward mobility among generations—that is, how many children have lower socio-economic status than their parents?

I suspect that most American suburbs, especially in newer cities like Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, and Atlanta, do not present nearly so gloomy a cast of mind as Pleasanton. Moreover, what sociologists call “circulation mobility” (some people moving up, others moving down) is not as dramatically new in this country as Newman makes it out to be. Tocqueville, for example, reported in the 1830s that

the families of the great landowners have almost mingled with the common mass…. Most of them have fallen into the most complete obscurity…. Wealth circulates [in the United States] with incredible rapidity, and experience shows that two successive generations seldom enjoy its favors.

Newman is right to say that during the period between the end of the Great Depression and the early 1970s, comparatively few families—especially among the descendants of the turn-of-the-century Great Immigration to New York City—suffered economic or social decline, but she doesn’t make it clear how much of a departure the contemporary situation she is describing is from the rest of American experience.

In Silent Depression, Wallace C. Peterson gives a clearer account of the same phenomenon that Newman writes about, but he does not bring it to life: he has done no fieldwork, and his personal examples all come from newspaper and magazine clippings. Peterson’s “silent depression” is the period since 1973, when productivity growth and average weekly wages leveled off, after their consistent rise since the end of World War II. From his energetic summary of the leading recent studies of income and wealth distribution and of economic mobility, he makes a convincing case that the middle class (which he defines as members of families with incomes between $25,000 and $75,000 a year) has shrunk during the past two decades, and that beginning in 1980, more people have fallen out of it than have risen into it. Most of his material is well known in the social sciences.3 His statistics for downward mobility come from the University of Michigan’s Panel Study on Income Dynamics, and they would support a narrow version of Newman’s assertions about the middle class.

  1. 1

    Arthur J. Norton and Louisa F. Miller, “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the 1990’s,” US Bureau of the Census, 1992, p. 12.

  2. 2

    Bidding War—or Growth?” The Washington Post, February 27, 1992, p. A19.

  3. 3

    Actually, the freshest and subtlest work I’ve read on the subject of family economics since 1973 is an unpublished paper called “Incomes and Inequality Since 1970” by Frank Levy, a professor at MIT and author of Dollars and Dreams: The Changing American Income Distribution (Russell Sage Foundation, 1987). Levy says the middle class has undergone a modest “hollowing out,” rather than a devastation, and he then teases out a more interesting story by looking at subgroups of the middle class. Middleclass women have been dramatically upwardly mobile; most middle-class families have stayed abreast because of the wife’s increasing earnings; and there is an “increasing association between education and earnings.” Therefore, “a large part of the story of the vanishing middle class jobs is a story about men who have not gone beyond high school.”

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