When Hillary Clinton announced for president in 2007, she emphasized not her climb to wealth but her humble roots.
“I grew up in a middle-class family in the middle of America,” she said.
That her father was a prosperous fabric store owner did not necessarily mean her family was not middle class. Though the Census Bureau maintains a rather exacting definition for poverty — there are 48 “thresholds” to cross — there is no official definition for “middle class.”
When Clinton was growing up in a picturesque suburb northwest of Chicago, to be middle-class meant having your own home, a car or two in the carport, taking a family vacation every year, sending your kids to college, and having some retirement savings.
Most of all, being in the middle class meant security. The socio-economic ladder led only upward. And you were secure in the belief that your children would have a better life than you.
If you believe such things today, however, you are an optimist. Or plastered.
Today the middle class is distraught, apprehensive and shrinking. And poorer. In 1989, the median household income in America was $51,681 measured in today’s dollars. In 2012, the median household income was $51,017.
That’s right; after 23 years of toil, the middle class managed to get poorer. And imperiled.
A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce put it in simple terms: “It is more difficult now than in the past for many people to achieve middle class status because prices for certain key goods — health care, college and housing — have gone up faster than income.”
But one thing the middle class does have going for it currently is sheer size. “The middle class is made up of 60 to 70 percent of Americans,” Robert Reich, a former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, told me Monday. “The bottom 15 to 20 percent are poor. And all of the top 10 percent may not regard themselves as wealthy, but they are on the other side of the great divide.”
Where you live also determines whether you have crested the divide. “In San Francisco and Manhattan, you can feel quite poor on $100,000 a year,” Reich added.
Reich said we are now living amid an economic recovery, but “this is the first recovery in history in which median household income has dropped.”