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Middle Class Aided Its Own Decline

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

This was the Year of the Middle Class -- as in, its falling incomes, loss of job security and anger. The global economic forces fueling the decline, such as foreign competition and computers, have been well reported. But what about cultural factors? Is the middle class going down partly because it stopped acting middle class?

For those who remember the American middle's golden era of 40 years ago -- or see it reconstructed on TV dramas -- the cultural losses are pretty shocking. The middle managers in "Mad Men" returned to orderly homes with tidy children, even as their personal lives spun into chaos. While comfortable, their houses were modest by today's McMansion standards. That's because they were living within their means.

On "Pan Am," the passengers in economy class are served hot meals on trays. The flight attendants (stewardesses then) deal with neatly dressed travelers in all classes. And while they have their problem passengers, they do not do daily battle against swinish slobs with money.

Frugality used to be a central middle-class theme. What happened to it? We now read the stories of middle-class families in free fall because they lost a job and had no savings. Back in the mists of time, there was a rule about setting aside six months of salary to cover a possible job loss. Not only did the middle class stop saving, but it famously borrowed to maintain extravagant living beyond what its stagnating salaries could support.

Middle-class Americans used to throw "mortgage burning parties," when, after 30 years, they finally paid off their home loans. They understood as long as they had a mortgage, they were not full homeowners.

But come the housing bubble of the last decade, middle-class people no longer viewed their rising home prices as mere whipped cream on a prudent savings plan. They saw a higher value as the main course to be quickly devoured by borrowing against it. Now Americans' equity in their homes (the home's value minus mortgage) is half what it was in 2006.

Many middle-class parents of the '50s and '60s well remembered the privations of the Great Depression. Thus, they raised their children to be survivors in an uncertain world, not as princes and princesses who can do no wrong. They understood the importance of education and manners. They regarded teachers as authorities to be respected. (Observe the strict supervision of the children in "Mad Men.")

Girls from the middle class -- or from what once was -- now scamper through the mall baring cleavage, and wearing thick eyeliner and outrageous heels. Their intellectual interests seem nil, and their apparent need to push their sexual availability on boys depresses the feminist soul.

The public square was the meeting ground for all classes. But while the rich could always retreat to private splendor, the middle class needed its Main Streets for civic engagement.

And it was the middle class that abandoned its downtown retailers for the big box discounter filling the shelves with the cheapest goods from Asia. The factories its members worked in closed. And the neighborhood store that sponsored the local baseball team vanished.

Brands of detergent, scouring powder and other household staples were once a shared experience of all but the poorest classes. The consumer products giant Procter & Gamble is now coming out with a cheaper brand of soap for the middle class, The Wall Street Journal reports. On the high end, P&G is selling a fancy package of Olay-Pro-X skin care basics for about $60.

Can the losses, economic and cultural, be reversed? Perhaps, but that would require a very different political and social conversation. We may have a theme for 2012.

COPYRIGHT 2011 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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