Kevin Leicht has written a book about the struggles middle class households face when trying to make ends meet titled Postindustrial Peasants: The Illusion of Middle-Class Prosperity” (Worth Publishers). I suppose the title speaks for itself, but he also provided a short version of his argument in an op-ed piece titled “Debt-laden middle class works harder, slips further” in the Des Moines Register (May 13, 2007). He presents his basic thesis early on:

Despite debt-enabled appearances of prosperity, the American middle class is struggling. A combination of declining wages, job instability, unfair taxes, productivity gains taken by others, increased working hours, inflation and consumer debt has made the middle class into an endangered species.

He quickly goes on to add additional factors, including globalization, health-care costs, tax breaks for the wealthy, and cuts in pension plans.

Middle class families, he argues, were able to perpetuate a middle class lifestyle through borrowing, leading to accumulating debt, leading Leicht to coin the term “post-industrial peasants” to describe the middle class.

One of multiple statistics he uses to support his claims I had often wondered about. It measures the number of “average for-pay hours worked by all married couples.” He found that this went up from 52.5 hours in 1970 to 62.8 hours in 1997. He also reports that the percent of families where both the husband and wife worked rose from 35.9% to 59.5%. As he puts it, “we are working more and saving less.” He goes on to say, that nowadays:

One of the few economic rules that make sense is that it takes two full-time workers’ incomes to support a lifestyle that one income used to buy.

According to a graphic accompanying the story, average yearly earnings remained relatively flat between 1970 and 2000 (actually slightly lower in 2000 than in 1970). During this same period, average household debt rose from 67% of income in 1970 to 94% in 2000.

He goes on to suggest that there are things that can be done, both individually (such as restraining credit use, start saving even if only a little, etc.) and collectively (including tax benefits to corporations who provide good pay and benefits, recognizing good jobs at good wages as a family value, etc.).

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