As a boy back in the 1970s, I sometimes enjoyed, in the basement bedroom of my best friend, the guilty pleasure of perusing Mad magazine, a then-fresh satirical publication designed to educate teens and young adults, tongue in cheek, in the ways of the world. One particular piece, written and drolly illustrated by one Lloyd Gola, left a particular impression on me. It was entitled “Middle Class Poverty Is … ,” and laid out a number of humorous scenarios typical of the recession-ridden American middle class of the mid-1970s. “You’ve heard of ‘Inner City Poverty’ and ‘Appalachian Poverty’ and ‘Old Age Poverty,’” the subtitle proclaimed. “And yet, millions of our citizens are being inflicted with another type of poverty. We’re referring, of course, to the great American Middle Class … working … paying bills and taxes … and somehow, just about making it through from payday to payday!” According to the article, the symptoms of “Middle Class Poverty” included:
“Hiding inside your $30,000.00 house because you don’t have the money to pay the paper boy.”
“Receiving compliments from your friends on your antique furniture … and you never even knew you owned any antiques.”
“Getting a moonlighting job at your local gas station, and hoping none of your neighbors show up.”
“Watching the President on TV announcing that the recession is over … the same day you were canned.”
“Encouraging your daughter and her fiancé to elope.”
“Helping your working wife clean the house on Saturday.”
“Having to wait to read the latest best-seller until it comes out in paperback.”
“Not being able to scream at your kid to get a haircut because you can’t spare the three bucks.”
Symptoms of the Slide
While the prices seem positively quaint by today’s standards, the symptoms have a very familiar ring, although many middle-class families in 2014 probably wish they could make ends meet merely by picking up extra part-time work at a gas station or convenience store. The ’70s were a decade of economic and financial turmoil that led to significant declines in the American standard of living, especially for a middle class only recently flush with the fruits of the booming 1950s and ’60s. But those hard economic times, which also saw the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Carter presidency, have been surpassed by the political and economic tumult of the new century.
Although the American economy appears to be in sluggish recovery these days, at least in contrast with the havoc wrought by the recent recession, the long-term trends are clear: The American middle class has been in unmistakable long-term decline since at least the 1970s, and the rising generation can expect to enjoy a significantly lower standard of living and financial well-being than its immediate predecessors.
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