The Road Ahead for Middle Class Families

Middle-class families are squeezed as never before. Here, ten ideas to help us all get back on track.

By Barbara Kantrowitz from Reader's Digest | November 2011

The Hallum FamilyPhotograph by Tamara ReynoldsOur faith that the power of hard work leads to a brighter future is being tested daily.
Being middle class is the very heart  of the American Dream. In practical terms, it’s having a job (or two) that pays enough so you can own a home and a car (or two), save for college and retirement, take a vacation once a year, and enjoy a few luxuries without worrying too much. Statistically, for a two-parent, two-child family, it’s having a household income in the range of about $50,000 to $122,000 a year. But perhaps most important of all, it means believing, against all odds and in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, that our children can have an even better life than our own.

In 2011, our faith in a brighter future, and in the power of hard work to get us there, is being tested daily. Trapped in the worst economy since the Great Depression, plagued by unemployment and a busted housing market, millions of us have turned from the great, enduring goal of getting ahead to the wearying task of merely surviving. We are saving less and borrowing more because our incomes have stagnated while our expenses have soared. Housing, health care, and transportation are all much more expensive than a generation ago. Child care is an additional burden for two-income couples, and the cost of college, public and private, has skyrocketed. All the while, talking heads discuss our plight as if we were an endangered species — and sometimes it can feel that way.

Ultimately, this crisis is about jobs — good-paying jobs that enable not just our optimism but also the growth of our economy. The looming threat is what MIT economist David Autor describes as a “hollowing out” of the job market: a growing demand for highly paid trained professionals and low-skilled, low-wage workers but declining opportunities for those in the middle, the white- or blue-collar workers in clerical, administrative, sales, and manufacturing jobs. No wonder we’re living with such high anxiety.

The issues that took years to create aren’t likely to be solved overnight. But we aren’t powerless to rebuild. Reader’s Digest read the studies, talked to the experts, analyzed the data, and selected ten solutions to some of our basic problems. Some of the proposals are complex and long-term, others could help right now, a few are controversial. All offer hope, and all deserve to be part of any serious conversation about the future we all share.

IDEA 1
Teach our kids more science and tech
Job growth in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics industries over the past decade has been three times faster than growth in other fields, and people in these professions earn 26 percent more than others. In a 2010 report, the National Science Board made these recommendations: Increase ties between schools and research centers so, among other benefits, students can see scientists at work; train teachers to get younger students interested in science and technology at an early age; and do a better job of identifying students with science and math skills, especially those from lower-income backgrounds. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology urges recruiting and training 100,000 math and science teachers over the next decade and creating a national network of 1,000 schools that emphasize science and math. If we don’t do it, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, “the next generation will not be ready to be world-class inventors, doctors, engineers.”

WILL HELP:
Young people starting their careers; the United States, as we strive to compete in a high-tech-driven global economy.

WON’T HELP:
Older unemployed workers without technical training.

CHALLENGES:
The payoff is years away. And we’ll need many more teachers with specialized skills.

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