March 2014 - McCormick Place
There has been much in the media recently about income disparity. All this top 1 percent stuff, the disappearance of the middle class, and the fact that in much of South Florida people can’t afford an affordable home. And that for the first time in the history of the world, young people can’t expect to live as well as the previous generation. We wonder if we are living in the same world as such prophets of doom.
For starters, 1 percent seems kind of silly. It makes it sound as if everybody else is broke. Why don’t we see more stats on the top 25 or 30 percent, because those numbers will tell what happened to the middle class. It moved. Up. A little family history. Our mother had eight great grandparents, which is normal. Four of them died at the time of the Irish famine between 1845 and 1850, which is not normal, except that in that age life expectancy was far lower than today. People worked hard in often dangerous jobs. Many expected to be semi-invalids before they reached the age of Social Security, which did not exist then anyway. Our mother died living with a son in tony Rye, N.Y. Would that not be a step up from her great grandparents?
Our father’s family history is somewhat vague. They may have lost people in the famine as well, but we can only trace the family to the 1860s. His father was a stone mason, and Dad dropped out of high school to help support the large family. That family became a lot smaller when three of them died in the flu epidemic of 1918. Our father had three sons. Two of them were Ph.D.s. with careers in engineering and economics. They surely were better off than those relatives who died in their 20s.
Even though he went to work as a teenager, our father probably qualified as middle class for that era. Not only were iPads unheard of, many people did not even have telephones. Yet in the 1930s he did surprisingly well with a large company at a time of depression. When cars were a status symbol, he owned one in 1929. He was by then solidly middle class, or perhaps even upper middle class. That changed when Dad lost his job at the beginning of World War II. Nobody kept such records, but we may have slipped back a rank, possibly to upper lower middle class. Dad did not have a car from 1942 (you couldn’t get gas during the war; aircraft carriers hoarded it all) until the mid-1950s. During much of that time he went to work by bus from one side of the city to the other. Mother also worked part-time, doing market research surveys. All of us went to college, two on scholarships, one by working at night while taking classes by day. It is safe to say that by normal measures, all have escaped middle class, and at worst are lower uppers today. And given prudent estate planning, our progeny are not likely to go down, nor should their grandchildren.
It was that way with just about all our friends. Most came from row house or duplex neighborhoods. Today they entertain grandchildren at vacation homes on the Jersey shore. It is hard to think of any among dozens of childhood acquaintances who are not living well above their parents’ status. They surely are in the top 30 percent. That’s what happened to the middle class.
Now we hear that those in the lower classes are stuck there. And we read of poor souls raising grandchildren (where are the mothers?) without help from husbands, if they exist, who are in jail. How can any family upgrade itself in those conditions? And when we hear horror stories of those who can’t afford a house, we wonder if they can afford nice cars, fancy TVs, myriad electronic gadgets (updated annually) and all the modern conveniences without which life is not worth living. None of those necessities were necessary for our previous generations, for they didn’t exist.
What did exist was a wish to take advantage of opportunity, to stay in school and go as far as one could, to do without things that weren’t essential. Mostly, it was the desire for a better life than those who came before you, and to do what it took to get there.