There are many factors that contribute to a sense of hard times among working Americans: flat or declining real wages; higher costs for the basics, such as food, health care, and education; a weakening of the government sponsored safety net; and a growing sense of unease about how to pay for retirement. Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, says this all adds up to a serious crisis afflicting the American middle class.
"It's not a squeeze," he says. "It's a collapse."
Sanders is Brooklyn born and passionate. He's one of two independents in the U.S. Senate - a self-described "democratic socialist." Last summer, we caught up with him in Burlington, Vermont, because we wanted to hear what he had to say about the plight of the middle class. He had been talking a lot about it, and holding a series of town meetings around Vermont with his constituents. He attributes that "collapse" of the middle class to a number of factors, including a decline in union membership, increased globalization, corporate greed - and a steady erosion of progressive government policies. Sanders says this is a crisis that has been building for years, and that it's been made much worse by eight years of the Bush administration.
"In the last 7 years, 8 million Americans have lost their health insurance," he says. "Five million people have slipped into poverty. Three million have lost their pensions. Median income has declined for working families by 25 percent."
Sanders says these are problems that have been brewing for years, but he says they have become much more apparent because of the current economic crisis.
"What you're seeing now," he says, "is the reality of the collapse of the middle class becoming more visible."
Sanders is among the more vocal advocates for working Americans - making the case that these are bad times in deed. But there is another view - that in fact things aren't so bad for the middle class. Brink Lindsay, a Vice President at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and the author of The Age of Abundance - How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture, says in many ways thing are better than ever for working Americans.
"People in the middle have experienced a real and significant increase in material living standards over the past generation," he says.
Lindsay takes issue with studies that suggest that real incomes have declined - or flattened in recent years. He says there is "a big statistical food fight" about how to measure real income. But the study he likes best is one done by an economist named Terry Fitzgerald -- published on the website of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank - that looks at median incomes between 1975 and 2005. Fitzgerald argues that median income for middle-American wage earners actually rose - as much as 30 percent. How does this square with those other studies we've heard about that show stagnant or declining wages? Well, that Minneapolis fed study factors in "fringe benefits," the cost to employers for such things as health care and retirement. And it's true -- companies are spending more on those benefits. But that doesn't translate into more money in the pockets of working Americans - who face higher prices for food, housing, health care and education. And that same study doesn't dispute that over the past thirty years the biggest gains - by far - have accrued to the richest Americans.
But Brink Lindsay argues most middle class Americans are living much better than they did, say, twenty-five ago. And he says they have a lot of stuff to prove it - things like personal computers, the world wide web, e-mail, anti-lock breaks, dvds, advanced medical technology. Even the size of the median house size is a whole lot bigger than it used to be.
"So anyone who has lived through this period," Lindsay says, "and thinks about how typical people lived materially [twenty five year ago] would be hard pressed to argue that ordinary Americans don't live materially better today."
According to this argument, the average American can enjoy all kinds of modern gadgets and conveniences that save time and energy - and that are cheaper to produce and easier to buy than ever before. The issue isn't the high cost of living, it's that Americans are living high. Or at least higher than ever before. Greg Easterbrook, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and author of The Progress Paradox, makes a similar case.
"We almost all describe ourselves as living worse than our parents did," he says. "But over all, the country has been improving in almost every way for 30 to 40 years."
Easterbrook cites lower crime rates, less pollution, declining rates of disease, longer lives and higher incomes for most people as evidence that things are steadily improving.
"People tell pollsters that the country is getting worse," he says, "even though practically everything we can measure is improving."
Maybe so. But Bill Curry, a former domestic policy advisor in the Clinton White House, says focusing on material comforts of the AVERAGE family misses the point. Curry argues that there are real and concrete reasons why life is a lot harder for many middle class Americans than it used to be. For example, he points out that in the 1950s and 60s, gas and electricity were relatively cheap; food prices didn't rise much with inflation. On the other hand, televisions were expensive, and people had to strive to afford the extras.
"It's the reverse today," Curry says. "It's the cost of putting a breakfast on the table that's going through the roof, of heating your house, of running your car, but they're giving the TVs away at Best Buy for almost nothing."
Curry says that reversal has created a feeling of constant anxiety, striving and marginalization for much of the middle class.
Peter Gosselin, a reporter with Los Angeles Times and the author of High Wire, about the increasingly precarious state of American families, agrees. He takes issue with what he calls "a whole school of conservative thought that loves to focus on air conditioners and color TVs." Gosselin says it is true: there are a lot more wide-screened TVs in middle class than ever before.
"But they are owned by people who might well not keep them," Gosselin says. "And they also hold it with an immense amount of debt. So this assemblage of stuff of middle class lives is sitting not on the bedrock of ownership, but on the sea of debt. "
Gosselin says this represents a big change - a shift toward a more uncertain status for millions of Americans compared to a generation ago.
That sense of anxiety and marginalization that Curry and Gosselin describe brings us back to Burlington, Vermont and Senator Bernie Sanders. Last summer, Sanders put a note on his web-site inviting his constituents to tell him "what the decline of the middle class means to them." He expected a few dozen responses, but he ended up receiving more than seven hundred.
"And that number was extraordinary," Sanders says. "And what they spoke to was the reality of people who thought they were in the middle class who understood that they no longer were."
Sanders said the responses revealed a level of economic desperation that he did not realize existed. Some of his constituents expressed fear that they would be unable to afford to retire; others were concerned about the rising cost of health care, child care and food. And some worried that their kids would not enjoy as a high a standard of living as they do. Sanders says, the fact that he received so many responses from his constituents in a small state like Vermont is significant.
"It tells me that there are millions and millions and millions of people who are economically sinking," Sanders says. "That's what you're seeing right now. "
Among those who responded to Sander's request for stories about the middle class was Kristin Husher, who lives in a cozy log home on a quiet dirt road in Brookfield, Vermont. Husher's home is surrounded by green hills and rolling grassy pastures that remind you why Vermont is called the green mountain state. Husher has a 9-year old daughter, an 18-year-old son and a 20 year old daughter who's away at college. She is 50 years old, a trained nurse, and a director of nursing education in the Vermont state college system. Her husband, Neil, is an architect, who has been out of work for some time. So Kristin keeps the family afloat on her salary of 58-thousand dollars a year, which, she says, is a lot of money in Vermont.
"But here I am, I'm not making it," she says. "I'm falling farther and farther behind -- thinking, am I ever going to be able to retire? The answer's no."
Husher says with just $50,000 in her retirement fund, kids to support, college to pay for, and an unemployed husband, she cannot imagine how she will ever be able to afford retirement. And yet, in many ways, her life looks pretty good. She lives in a beautiful part of the country. Her daughter is in a private college, and the family has a lot of that "stuff" we mentioned earlier: the large family room, the big TV, a done-over bathroom with a Jacuzzi. Yet Husher is struggling with financial burdens that are sources of insecurity for an increasing number of middle class families: housing, health insurance, her kids' college education, and as we heard, retirement.
"Then there's the [college] tuition bill," she says. "And when my daughter came home from college she said, Mom I have to have my wisdom teeth out."
Loans and grants have covered some of her daughter's college bill, but Husher is struggling to cover the rest, and she says her daughter may have to drop out of private college and transfer to a less expensive state school. Beyond that, her son has a medical condition that requires regular treatment, but Husher's insurance will stop covering him when he turns 19 later this year. And this year she took a second mortgage out on her house - just to afford the heating oil this winter.
Husher says lately she has been thinking about the way life used to be when she was growing up. She was raised in a middle class family in which her mother stayed home, and her father worked. They weren't rich, but she says on her father's one salary, she and her siblings enjoyed vacations, camp, their medical needs were taken care of, and they were all sent to college.
"I don't know when it started to shift," Husher says, "but in my lifetime it really does take two incomes to support a household."
It's a theme you hear again and again - and it represents a dramatic shift in reality for baby boomers. Elizabeth Warren, a professor at the Harvard Law School who studies the credit industry and the middle class economy, says families like Kristin Husher's - with one spouse out of work -- face a risk that wasn't there a generation ago.
"It used to be what we called "the added worker effect," Warren says.
Warren says, once upon a time the typical family had one spouse in the workplace - like Husher's father - and another at home - like her mother. But with stagnant or declining wages and rising prices for basic needs, families had to adapt - so they sent everybody into the workforce.
"And that means there's no back-up," Warren says. "When somebody gets sick, or Dad loses his job - there's nobody to send in and take up the slack. And that means a kind of safety net that we used to have has just evaporated."
Jared Bernstein, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington who studies the middle class economy, says Kristin Husher is like millions of working Americans, who he says are balancing precariously on an economic tightrope without a net.
"It used to be that it wasn't so much a tight rope as a ladder that you could generally depend on moving up," Bernstein says. "If you fell off there was a safety net to catch you."
Bernstein says Kristin Husher doesn't have that any more. She's hurt by stagnant wages and higher prices for food, energy and her daughter's education. And twenty-five years ago, almost 40 percent of workers were covered by pensions - like her father. Today, that number is down to 20 percent. So more people like Kristin Husher worry about retirement -- as a plummeting stock market diminishes their 401-K's. Bernstein says these challenges have historically been met through a contract between people, their employers and the government, but he says that contract has broken down for working Americans like Husher.
"She can't depend on any of these institutions - including the labor market - to play the role that it historically has in rendering her a more secure member of this economy."
Even Husher's employer-based health insurance costs more than it used to, and it covers less. And it will not help her son -- who could end up among the 47-million Americans with no health coverage at all.
"What do we do with these kids who get to adulthood and can't afford insurance?" Husher asks, her voice cracking with emotion.
Husher says, families shouldn't have to struggle with such issues in a nation as wealthy as ours. But more and more families are - according to Peter Gosselin, the author of "HIGH WIRE - The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families." Gosselin argues that each of the struts that supports families -- jobs, benefits, housing, health coverage, college and retirement savings - have been weakened, leaving families feeling vulnerable. Gosselin says risk has shifted from the broad shoulders of business and government on to the fragile backs of working families.
"It's happened very incrementally," Gosselin says, "so people haven't been aware that these risks have been dumped on them."
Gosselin says families become especially aware of how precarious their situations are when the economy stops performing well - as it has lately -- and suddenly, he says, they realize that the protections that they thought they could count on aren't there.
For her part, Husher is sensitive to the mood of the country: she's worried about the falling stock market, the recession, and about her future.
"I just don't know," she says. "I think I'm going to have to figure out a way to keep nursing and taking care of patients until I'm 90."
Elizabeth Warren of the Harvard Law School says Kristin Husher's deep and troubling sense of insecurity about the future is shared by an increasing number of middle class families. Stagnant wages, rising prices for the essentials of life, and a frayed safety net when times are tough have left millions of Americans with a sense of hopelessness. Warren says the big question about the future of the middle class is whether politics as usual will continue, or whether working families will say, "I've had it. I work hard. I deserve better than this, and I demand more protection for myself and for my children."
Warren calls this a moment in economic - and political - history; that could determine whether a robust American middle class will even survive.
"I wonder whether this group that we know as the middle class is going to be the kind of secure, solid group of our memory," Warren says. "Or whether middle class will instead will be synonymous with -- you keep working, you keep struggling, and some fall down and others drag themselves up -- but no assurances."