The Sad, Sorry State of the Middle Class

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One needs only to browse the headlines, or perhaps observe the bustling action at your neighborhood thrift store, to realize that America’s middle classes have been faring poorly lately. Here, a few recent headlines that collectively sum up the state of the middle class:

“Many in the U.S. slip from the middle class, study finds”
According to a new report from Pew Charitable Trusts (covered by the Washington Post, among others), the phenomena of “downward mobility” was common even before the economy collapsed in 2007. Among Americans who grew up as members of the middle class, 21% of white men and a whopping 39% of African American men qualified as downwardly mobile—falling below the 30th percentile in income, or earning 20% less than their parents—before the recession presumably put them in an even worse financial state.

“The Limping Middle Class”
This New York Times op-ed from Robert B. Reich points out that the richest 5% of Americans now account for 37% of consumer purchases—and nowadays especially, the middle classes just don’t have enough purchasing power to keep the economy humming along. Not without heading deeply back into debt, that is. But there are reasons that a wealthier, more stable, more empowered middle class benefits Americans in all income brackets:

The economy cannot possibly get out of its current doldrums without a strategy to revive the purchasing power of America’s vast middle class. The spending of the richest 5 percent alone will not lead to a virtuous cycle of more jobs and higher living standards.

(MORE: Has America Become a Nation of Squatters?)

“Middle class may be losing political influence”
An Arizona Republic story voices a nagging sentiment felt by many: Namely, that “Congress no longer is in touch with middle-class concerns and anxieties the way it once was.” Among those who subscribe to this point of view happens to be a member of Congress, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.):

“In the past, job bills, unemployment insurance, funding for education, the security of Medicare and Social Security — all those things were driven by the middle class and those who aspired to the middle class,” said Grijalva, one of the most liberal members of Congress and co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Now, all those things are jeopardized because the agenda has shifted to those special-interest groups who right now are controlling the purse strings and are making it possible for people to be elected, and influencing those elections.”

“Down and Out in L.A.: When the Middle Class Goes Homeless”
A recent TIME story reports on the rise of families resorting to homeless shelters in the Los Angeles area. The number of families housed in one shelter, for instance, has tripled since 2008.

(MORE: Just in Time for Labor Day, Some Especially Grim Employment Statistics)

“Can the Middle Class Be Saved?”
The answer to this question, posed in an enormous Atlantic Monthly cover story, is a definitive “um, maybe … hopefully?” What’s argued here is that the Great Recession has sped up broad societal transformations that have been in progress for generations, and what’s emerging quickly is a dramatically tiered society consisting of a tiny group of the ultra-wealthy elite, a larger subset of professional workers in the middle-class—”unexceptional college graduates for whom the arrow of fortune points mostly sideways”—and everybody else. This latter group represents the majority of the population, and they’re in the most trouble:

The true center of American society has always been its nonprofessionals—high-school graduates who didn’t go on to get a bachelor’s degree make up 58 percent of the adult population. And as manufacturing jobs and semiskilled office positions disappear, much of this vast, nonprofessional middle class is drifting downward.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.