American middle class worried about downward mobility

A new poll suggests the American middle class is anxious about falling out of the middle class:

That’s the deeply ambivalent message from the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll exploring the public’s perception of what it means to be middle class in America today. Fully 56 percent of those surveyed said they believe they will eventually climb to a higher rung on the economic ladder than they occupy now. But even more said they worry about falling into a lower economic class sometime in the next few years. Reaffirming the results in earlier Heartland Monitor polls, most of those surveyed said the middle class today enjoys less opportunity, job security, and disposable income than earlier generations did. And strikingly small percentages of American adults said they consider it “very realistic” that they can meet such basic financial goals as paying for their children’s college, retiring comfortably, or saving “enough money to … deal with a health emergency or job loss.”

In all, the survey suggests that after years of economic turmoil, most families now believe the most valuable–and elusive–possession in American life isn’t any tangible acquisition, such as a house or a car, but rather economic security. Asked to define what it means to be middle class, a solid 54 percent majority of respondents picked “having the ability to keep up with expenses and hold a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt”; a smaller percentage defined it in terms of getting ahead and accumulating savings. “It seems like that class of the people just live from paycheck to paycheck,” said Dale High, a trucker from near Idaho Falls, Idaho, who responded to the poll. “Everything is going up, but wages are staying the same. And people can’t live like that.”

Several quick thoughts:

1. Is this mainly the result of the current economic conditions? In other words, if the American economy rebounded significantly in the next few years, would the middle class again be more optimistic? I’m wondering if this is a temporary anxiety or is this a longer-term insecurity based on a perception that the world and their position within it is more fragile than before.

2. This seems related to research that suggests people feel losses more deeply than equivalent gains. Moving down is much more influential than moving up.

3. How do these perceptions actually line up with economic realities? Here is one indicator:

People who responded to the Allstate/National Journal poll reported a substantial amount of economic churning in their own lives–showing, again, a close balance between upward and downward mobility in American life. Exactly 30 percent of those surveyed reported they had risen from a lower economic class, and 27 percent said they had slipped down from a higher class. Forty-three percent had seen no movement at all…

This fear of losing ground is rooted in the conviction that, in the past few years, downward mobility has become much more common than upward movement. Asked whether more Americans recently had “earned or worked their way into the middle class” or had “fallen out of the middle class because of the economy,” almost eight times as many respondents took the bleaker view.

So how much “economic churning” is acceptable? Where do these ideas that people are falling behind at larger rates coming from – statistics about stagnant median household incomes, anecdotal evidence from family, friends, and neighbors, media coverage, etc.?

4. I wonder if this is also related to American interest in keeping up with others. Critics have argued that American consumption and life in suburbia has been motivated by “keeping up with the Joneses.” Is this still the case when times are tougher – people don’t want to fall behind relative to others around them? There is also some measure of generational comparison in this poll data – perhaps future generations will have it tougher in living in a “decent life.”

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