Tom Finneran: The Plight of the American “Six-Figure” Family
Friday, August 24, 2012
Consider the couple with a household income of $125,000-140,000 a year.
Wow. On paper they are “rich”. By our census data and definitions they are in the top 20% of American households. Isn’t their life just grand?
They both work. They are dependable and diligent. They are good parents and good neighbors. And, they are desperate. They neither want nor deserve any public assistance or program. Nor do they want any sanctimonious sympathy from political candidates. Rather, they would appreciate a little bit of the three Rs---recognition, respect, and restraint.
The recognition would be the simple understanding that these folks are the heart and lungs of the American economy and society. The respect would be the respect we hold for effort and enterprise, recognizing that our nation falls apart without them. The restraint would be the decent restraint we accord to over-loaded camels when we step away from that final straw which would break the camel’s back.
Take a peek inside their lives—
She grew up on the lower edge of the middle class—not really poor, but a million miles away from Wellesley. He grew up in a different town on that same lower edge of the middle. He’s good with his hands and he’s good with tools. Watch him change a diaper, fold laundry, fix a broken window, or apply his trade and you behold an American craftsman. He loves to get overtime whenever he can. By the way, he can’t afford to take his kids to a single game for any of the town’s professional sports teams. No big deal there anyway—it’s billionaires paying millionaires who then bitch and moan all day long. Another topic for another day.
She was always a good student, went to college, speaks well, writes well, and is a great employee. She’s a fabulous mother too and that’s the source of some of the tension in their lives. She would love to stay at home with her little ones, walking, talking, playing, coaching soccer or Little League, leading a Brownie group, giving her children and other children a strong and loving start to life.
So far so good, right? It’s a “typical” American story about a young couple just starting out………
Here’s where it goes off the rails. She’s got college debt, lots of it. Remember that lower edge of the middle class? Her family simply did not have the means to send her and her brothers and sisters off to college.
They all worked, part-time, between semesters, and every summer but they still had to borrow lots of money to get their degrees. Our couple also has a mortgage (now underwater!!), and the payments are a stretch. They sweat out every layoff at work and they live in fear of a disabling accident. They are one step from the poorhouse and yes, they’ve seen repo men in the neighborhood.
There’s more—our young couple has some pretty serious doubts about public education. They are public kids themselves with none of the pretensions of Groton. Yet, they know that the public schools today seem at best adrift. Here are their choices then—move to a community with “good schools” and beggar themselves in a bidding war or stay put and pay for parochial or private school options. Regarding those communities with “good schools”, please tell me the relevance of the decline of the real estate market in Brookline or Needham or Newton to our young six-figure couple.
So the rundown house with the collapsing tool shed on a busy main street no longer sells in one day for $1.6 million dollars! No, today, after the big market correction, it sells in one day for $1.2 million dollars!! What a deal! What a steal!
But wait—there’s more. We haven’t talked about daycare costs. Our young couple, forced to work by economic realities, cannot leave the little ones unattended for their 50-60 hour workweeks. They are out the door by 6 or 7 AM and they don’t get home until after 7:00 PM. Welcome to the world of daycare where one minute early or five minutes late costs you a penalty on top of the arm and leg that you are already paying.
Mice in the laboratories have an easier treadmill than the one our young couple is on.
Finally, when the kids have been tucked in for the night and our couple sits down with cold pizza and the remote, here’s what’s on the news---college tuitions approaching $60,000 a year, CEO bonuses for running companies into the ground, and demands for “free stuff” from a crowd that needs both soap and detox. They look at each other and they begin to laugh. Or cry...
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