1. Falling income: The pinch that many families feel comes from incomes that have fallen while other unavoidable costs have continued to go up. From 2000 to 2008, median household income after inflation was basically unchanged, the weakest performance since at least the end of World War II. And that was mostly before the recession. Economists estimate that once additional data are tallied, they will show that median real income fell by 5 to 7 percent during the recession. That's a huge drop that seems unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon, since a weak job market means that even those who have jobs are far less likely to get raises. And many people have absorbed pay cuts or taken new jobs that pay a lot less than they used to earn.
2. Reduced savings net worth: When incomes fall faster than expenses, the first impulse is often to make up the difference by borrowing. But banks and credit-card issuers have clamped down on lending, leaving many Americans and Canadians no choice but to raid their savings to pay the bills. This has happened at the same time that home values have plunged. Many homeowners now have little or no home equity, and a topsy-turvy stock market has stabilized more than 25 percent below its peak values from 2007. The result is a net loss of about $12 trillion in Americans' net worth over the past three years, according to the Federal Reserve--about $102,000 per U.S. household.
3. High healthcare costs. The sob stories trotted out by advocates of healthcare
reform ring true. Healthcare costs rose by 155 percent between 1990 and 2008, according to the White House's middle-class task force, while median household income rose by just 20 percent. That means medical costs take an increasing share of take-home pay for virtually every family. A separate study from 2009 found that 62 percent of all personal bankruptcies stemmed from medical problems that overwhelmed family finances. Even if Washington passes healthcare reform, rising medical costs seem likely to pressure the family budget for years, forcing many to simply spend less on other things.
4. Child-care/elder-care expenses. Many families have maintained their standard of living because both parents work. Between 1990 and 2008, for example, hours worked by both parents in a typical middle-income family increased 5 percent; in a middle-income single-parent family, hours worked spiked by 13.4 percent. That leaves less time for taking care of kids, aging parents, and anything else that needs attention--and the added costs of paying somebody else to do it. Data from the recession may show that child- and elder-care costs have eased as more people find themselves involuntarily stuck at home. And as Americans and Canadians simplify their lives, some moms and dads may decide that it makes sense for one parent to spend more time at home instead of working to pay for a bunch of stuff the family doesn't really need.
5. College costs. A typical family with two kids should sock away about $4,200 per year to pay for college. That's a tall order. College costs have risen about 43 percent since 1990, nearly twice the rise in median income. And with federal education funds being axed, public universities are hiking tuition and fees. A budget crisis in California, for instance, has led to a 32 percent increase in tuition at marquee state schools like UCLA and Berkeley, with more increases likely. Private schools, meanwhile, are struggling with steep drops in their endowments thanks to the financial crisis and the housing bust, which trashed mortgage-based investments. The bottom line for many families is that they'll have to take out bigger college loans, with students working more to pay for their own education.
6. Housing costs. The cost of financing and maintaining a home soared by 56 percent between 1990 and 2008, thanks to the housing bubble that's now deflating. Many families that bought a home near the peak of the market--say, between 2005 and 2007--are stuck with property that's declining in value and in some cases worth less than the mortgage. That will continue to fuel foreclosures and the stress of making huge housing payments that the family income can barely cover. But the housing bust is helping bring prices back down to manageable levels for many families, one break for those who escape the recession with their household finances more or less intact.
7. False expectations. For the past 40 or 50 years, Americans have lived by a series of unofficial tenets: A good education guarantees a good job, hard work will bring prosperity, and 40 years of 40-hour-a-week work earns a comfortable retirement. Then, maybe; now, not so much. Workers who believe that somebody owes them a comfortable life just because they try hard are risking bitter disappointment in a Darwinian economy, where there are likely to be more losers and fewer winners than we're used to. The winners will be those who learn how to adapt, expect nobody to give them anything, and are prepared to work harder in the future than they did in the past. That's how it was in America before anybody ever heard of the middle class, and it may be that way for a while again. The real middle class--the true bedrock of the nation--will be able to handle it.