A magical glow arises from the land. “Our economy is evolving,” Labor Secretary Elaine Chao told CNN in September. “It’s transitioning to a knowledge-based economy.” Many liberals are dazzled by the light, imagining a new era in which poverty is curable by education and the highly educated know no limits. Those who go to college and work hard are set for life, while the clueless and the unprepared drift down into the working poor. Message to Americans in a competitive, globalized world: Sink or swim. It’s up to you.
But wasted knowledge piles up all around us, along with the blighted lives of people who made “all the right choices,” got their degrees and have either lost or never found their footing. There’s the Atlanta-based IT marketing expert who has alternated between professional jobs and janitorial work, the laid-off chemical engineer who’s spent time in shelters, the 50-ish Minneapolis cab driver who offers his business card along with the receipt, because he still harbors some dim hope of returning to a job as a media executive.
It’s a largely hidden problem, this quiet erosion of the middle class. While the chronically poor have been highlighted by the living-wage movement, downwardly mobile members of the middle class get short shrift, even from people of conscience. True, the college educated are a relative elite, constituting 28 percent of the population and earning, on average, a lifetime total of $1 million more than those who lack a degree. But the middle class has been roiled in recent years by what the economists call “income volatility,” or sudden changes in fortune, usually caused by layoffs. The discarded shrink off in shame–after all, they must have done something wrong–and vanish from the unemployment statistics by going to Circuit City or Starbucks and taking whatever job they can get. To acknowledge their existence would be to admit that the “knowledge economy” is a delusion and to raise a rude finger in the face of the American dream.
For many, the trouble begins at commencement. Two-thirds of college graduates have borrowed heavily to pay for school, putting them nearly $20,000 in the red, on average. At current interest rates of 6.8 percent for federal student loans, that amounts to a $219 monthly payment for the next ten years. And those trying to buy more security with an advanced degree accumulate a combined student loan debt averaging a crippling $45,900. Once established in a professional-level job, many college graduates are finding their salaries inadequate to the rising costs of healthcare, housing and energy, especially as benefits shrink: 21 percent of college graduates now have no health insurance, up from 17 percent five years ago. And in a corporate culture bent on cost cutting, few are ever really “established.” Layoffs–a k a downsizings, right-sizings, smart-sizings and riffings–can strike at any time, as 14,000 white-collar Ford workers just discovered. Those who “land” again earn on average 17 percent less than they would have made had they not been laid off. Then once you hit 50, you’re officially over the hill and unlikely to find re-employment at a middle-class level. As one middle-aged white-collar worker reported, “You know what they call a 50-year-old person in a large corporation? Fat!”
As Louis Uchitelle emphasizes in his recent book The Disposable American, this chipping away at the middle class carries a high cost in emotional, as well as financial, pain. The wife of a working teacher describes her family as “scared, desperate, depressed and isolated” because of their financial challenges. A victim of layoffs writes: