When Debbie Bruister buys a gallon of milk at her local Kroger supermarket, she pays $3.69, up 70 centsfrom what she paid last year.
Getting to the store costs more, too. Gas in Corinth, Miss., her hometown, costs $3.51 a gallon now, compared to less than three bucks in 2012. That really hurts, considering her husband’s 112-mile daily round-trip commute to his job as a pharmacist.
“If you look at how much prices are going up, you get in the hole really quick,” Bruister said. “It’s a constant squeeze.”
In the wake of the Great Recession, millions of middle-class people are being pinched by stagnating incomes and the increased cost of living. America’s median household income has dropped by more than $4,000 since 2000, after adjusting for inflation, and the typical trappings of middle-class life are slipping out of financial reach for many families.
Families with young kids are struggling to afford childcare and save for the ever-climbing costs of college. Those nearing retirement are scrambling to sock away funds so they don’t have to work forever. A weak labor market means that employed Americans aren’t getting the pay raises they need to keep up — especially with big-ticket items such as health care eating away at their paychecks.
Economists say it boils down to two core problems: jobs and wages. The traditional “middle-class job” is disappearing.
Mid-wage occupations such as office managers and truck drivers accounted for 60% of the job losses during the recession, but only 22% of the gains during the recovery, according to a National Employment Law Project analysis of Labor Department data. Low-wage positions, on the other hand, soared 58%.
Uncertainty and insecurity are weighing down the middle class, even those who haven’t had a break in employment. More than 40% of those surveyed in a recent Rutgers University study said they were “very concerned” about job security.
They’re also not very optimistic about the near future. Fewer than one-third believe that economic conditions will improve next year, and an equal number think they will get worse, according to the Rutgers survey, conducted by the university’s Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. Only 19% believe that job, career and employment opportunities will be better for the next generation.
The survey’s title sums it up: “Diminished Lives and Futures: A Portrait of America in the Great-Recession Era.”
Dan Heiden of Eagan, Minn., embodies that life. Before 2007, the union supermarket worker owned an apartment and socked away funds in the bank and in a retirement account.
Then the store cut his hours.
“The economy tanked,” said Heiden, who now works no more than 30 hours a week. “They aren’t hiring full-time any more because they can pay less.”