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Series Reporter Anthony Brooks

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The Vanishing Middle Class: Inside Out

Middle class American families are in distress. Despite the enormous increase in wealth in America over the past two decades, for most Americans in the middle, wages have been flat -- or even losing ground. At the same time, the costs of basic necessities, including housing, health care, food and education have continued to rise. The recent economic slow-down, combined with the melt down of the real estate market, has made clear that the very fabric of the American dream is being ripped apart. That dream was once embodied by the stability of the middle class, and the idea that hard work and playing by the rules would be rewarded by a fair wage and the possibility to move up the economic ladder. But that is no longer the case for millions of hard working Americans. For them that dream has been transformed into growing economic insecurity, and in many cases, actual economic struggle.

What listeners are saying about the series:

Hello, I love your series and am thinking of incorporating it into a course i'm now teaching called Sustaining Democracy. I can have students go on line and listen to the program, but i'm wondering if i can have a transcript that they can then make use of when time comes to incorporate the material into a paper they'll write on economic issues and democracy.


bob schaible

Response from WBUR: We are working on adding a down-loadable version of the series. Please check back within the next few days.


I listened to this report this morning. I wish your report would have advocated more personal responsibility and more prudent financial handling for the American People.
True, the Bush Administration and the Federal Reserve Board were asleep and let the financial industry regulate itself. They are guilty of many things including engaging in the reckless war in Iraq. But on a personal level, many people were irresponsible for engaging in reckless financial dealings .
For a couple that makes $150,000 a year and takes up a loan of over $600,000, I would say they were in over their heads. They had a bad loan broker, got bad advice and had very bad luck! A bad luck does not necessarily ruin them but reckless behaviors will.
The family from Vermont with a jacuzzi may need to take a hard look at their financial situation and do some adjustment in their life style. With life-altering event, a re-assessment will be helpful.
I believe the Federal Government can help to make sure every American has a sound health care coverage. And it should institute reasonable oversight of the many financial products for consumers. At the same time, however, each and every American needs to take his/her share of the responsibility.
At best, your report only tells half of the story. It seems to seek sensationalizing the current economic misery. What we need from a report like this is not to encourage people's entitlement felt but to advocate more personal responsibility. At least, the report should not make people who are in trouble feel more desperate than more hopeful.
A Public Radio Station Listener,


Greetings. I heard part 4 of your excellent program today on Maine Public Radio. I must admit I have scant sympathy for the Hushers as far as their retirement plans go. How on earth did they EVER think that they were going to retire? It does not matter what the economy does, if, at age 50, you have only put away $50K for your own retirement, then you will in fact NEVER retire. Did they think that someone was going to hand them a million dollars when they hit 65? What were they thinking?

Martha MacIlvaine
3162 Friendship Rd.
Waldoboro, ME 04572


...... but I think that anyone who borrows beyond their means, not matter what anyone tells them, pretty much needs to figure things out for themselves. Borrowing $600K for a house in Boston is just not necessary. People should use some common sense and maintain a 60% loan to value ratio or better, no matter how much smaller their house is. Built in buffers create security.
Geoffrey Bove, DC, PhD
Senior Research Scientist
Dept. of Research Administration
University of Southern Maine
179 Research Building, 96 Falmouth St.
Portland, ME 04104-9300



Just watched your YouTube intro.
Insecurity seems to be the right word. Also, I feel conflicted about what to do. I try to live a real economy based on my actual income, but feel alot of pressure to participate in the easy credit lifestyle.

As a single mom, with one daughter, and a small house that I bought about 5 years ago (with creative financing), often feel I am one repair away from being out.

A few things contribute to my middle class insecurity:

--Not much family support.
My family is spread out (my 3 brothers have all moved away) and my own parents' divorce leaves me with no built in handyman or a few extra dollars to help out with this-that. No one to rely on. Friends, yes. But not the same. The time/ money balancing act is particularly tight without a spouse or relatives.

--My job (which I love) is unique in the area I live in and doesn't pay alot. (I make $40,000)
It doesn't offer advancement and income stays about the same with no opportunities to "climb". I could leave the profession (publishing) for something with more$$, but I know I wouldn't be as content. Also, I don't make enough to save for retirement, college. That bothers me.

--Can't keep up with all the home electronic demands.
I have an old laptop, no printer. My daughter needs to be familiar with digi world, but I can't do it all. cell, LAN, software, camera, managing photo files, system backups, cable, high speed everything. ACK!

On the surface, everything is fine...my daughter is healthy and takes piano lessons, I love my job, my car is pretty reliable, but I have about $25 a week spending money. Yikes! My house will need a new roof in a few years. That keeps me awake. I'm thinking about a part time job on the 2 nights when my daughter is with her dad. I'm conflicted though. I have a college degree and am 42 years old and I thought the days of cleaning toilets were in my past, but they might be back!

I'm not sure if my worries are real. I am thankful for all the wonderful things I have--good health, insurance, living close to my job, and also work flexibility. I try and focus on them. But I guess I'm concerned about unexpected expenses. Heat this winter, an old washer and dryer, car repairs. Concerned they will hit at once and home will be an apartment once again.

I can't send you a video--I don't have a video camera!

Susan Petrie
Albany, NY


What it means to me:

My employer (a large financial company) has gotten rid of the CEO for his poor decisions regarding the housing market. He leaves with a package of more money they I'll see in many lifetimes.

My employer has cut our pay to help raise capital to cover the mistakes made by the rich at the top.

My house remains for sale, unsellable and upside down in equity.

All my costs are on the rise and my salary is going down. At the same time my taxes are going to go to bailing out the very industry that created the problem.

Meanwhile we fight an illegal war costing billions of tax payer money. I have to ask when the American people will stand up and say enough is enough and get the corporations out of politics and policy making. It's past time to remind our government of no taxation without representation. I am at my end of being trapped at a job that creates and maintains this status quo when every trip to the grocery store is a horrible shock, and every trip to the pump serves as nothing more then a source of anger at President Bush and his let get rich Oil Cabinet.


Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.


Congressman Sanders comments regarding the US middle class being in a crisis seem nothing more than populist pandering by a master politician to me. It seems that Mr. Sanders feels that America can't compete against the rest of the world due to "unfettered trade" liberalization. He points out that Wal-mart, not GM is the leading US employer as evidence of this alleged crisis. I have some news for Congressman Sanders. GM is no longer the leading US employer because GM, like many other US companies and industries have failed! They have failed not due to international competition, but the exact opposite. They have failed to be the worlds leading innovators due to protectionist sentiment and inaction from our political leaders. We as Americans have been sitting around for the last thirty years with a sense of entitlement, continually chanting "we're number one, we're number one." Yet during the same time period we have failed as a nation to educate our children in science, math, engineering and language. This is why we are in the situation we are in now, not because of trade liberalization. If Mr. Sanders believes that we can't compete against China and the rest of the world without protection from our government, then he is un-American!

Chris DempseyPacific Grove, CA


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Compare the prices of goods and services from 1955 - 1975 - 2005

New PEW research on the middle-class in America

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders talks about income inequality in America

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