US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Pope Francis and America’s middle class

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If you’re middle class, then you probably know that you’re part of a dwindling slice of the American pie. Are you feeling like it’s harder and harder to make ends meet? You’re not alone. And while Pope Francis has talked about moral imperatives demanded by global poverty, has he forgotten the middle class?

Flying back from his historic visit to Latin America, a German reporter pressed the pontiff about why he talks so much about the poor and does not speak about the “working, tax-paying middle class.” Pope Francis paused for a moment and then thanked the reporter, saying (in Italian), “You are right. It’s an error of mine not to think about this.” Obviously troubled as he spoke, the pope then remarked, “The world is polarized. The middle class is becoming smaller. The polarization between the rich and poor has grown.” He promised to study the issue ahead of his upcoming visit to the United States. The expectation in Washington is that he will speak on this subject during his September visit.

The pope’s consideration of this issue is a timely one. America has a middle class on the ropes. Since 2000 every state in the country shows the middle class shrinking, with the worst states—many of them in the Rust Belt—seeing a decline of about 6% in the number of middle class households.  Nationwide, since 1980 the number of middle class households in the United States has shrunk by 10%. Moreover, these numbers mask the very disturbing fact that the sharpest erosion of the middle class has taken place in young families, thanks to the support that federal programs like Social Security and Medicare provide to older Americans.

The economic stress on surviving middle class families is intense. Middle class wages in real dollars have been stagnate or declining since the 1990s.  Over the same period inflation climbed a total of about 14%, including sharper increases for housing, food, childcare, college education, and similar family necessities. Middle class debt, even after the Great Recession, is still worrisomely high at about 122% of household income—double what it was in 1989.  Well paid jobs with benefits in the manufacturing and construction industries and mid-level management have declined nationwide, partially replaced by lower-paid service jobs without the same levels of benefits and job security. These many economic pressures have hugely impacted middle class family life. When Pope Francis speaks in Philadelphia about the challenges faced by the family in the modern world he cannot ignore the realities of this economic squeeze.

When we say the middle class is shrinking, where does that mean these families go? Since 1999 the ranks of households earning between $35,000 and $100,000 in income (what we mean when we say middle class) have declined by 10%, while those earning more than $100,000 decreased by 3%. However, the percentage of American households earning less than $35,000 has increased by 4%.  People are falling out of the middle class, not climbing up.  We see that evidenced in the spiking rates of children living in poverty (22%) and the high demand for social assistance.

The decline of America’s middle class is occurring amidst a tremendous transfer of wealth to the already wealthy.  According to a highly regarded Pew report, while the wealth of the middle class has declined or stagnated over recent decades, that of the wealthy has skyrocketed. In 2013 dollars, the median middle class wealth in 1983 was $94,300 and by 2013 had increased only a few thousand to $96,500.  In contrast, for the top fifth of American households, the same period saw their wealth more than double, from a median of $318,100 to $639,400.  Making matters worse, recent studies have confirmed that social and economic mobility in the United States is significantly lower than in many other developed countries. This means that people are less and less likely to rise out of the class into which they were born.

So what will Pope Francis say about the morality of this income inequality when he visits? Since Rerum Novarum (“Of Revolutionary Change”) in 1891, the church has promoted a minimum economic measure for families. This means that one worker’s income should be enough to provide for the basic needs of housing, nutrition, health, education, childcare, and even retirement benefits. This is what is defined as a livable wage.  Many American middle class families would strain to pass that bar. 

Pope Francis will remind the world of the moral cost of a middle class in crisis. For the millions of middle class Americans struggling with these realities, standing in solidarity with those families in poverty whose circumstances are far more dire, such papal attention will be welcome.

Stephen Schneck's blog, Church and state, will update every Monday. Follow him on Twitter @StephenSchneck.

Image: Flickr cc via woodleywonderworks

Monday, August 3, 2015