(Quick preface note: when I speak of rich vs poor, I’m not trying to drive a wedge between statuses–I.e., class warfare–nor do I take a judgmental view toward the poor of any kind, period. We ourselves have been living month to month for the past seven years, so I can honestly say: I get it, when it comes to being broke. I harbor absolutely no animosity toward either end of the socioeconomic spectrum.)
Walking around our apartment complex, I get the feeling that the one we live in seems to be one of the last bastions of American Middle Class-dom in existence. It’s a middle-of-the-road place, with middle-of-the-road vehicles parked in the parking lot, and middle-of-the-road people walking middle-of-the-road dogs.
I like that. I find the middle of the road a comfortable place to be–so long as nobody’s trying to run me over, that is (grin).
I also find that places like these are getting tougher to come by. If we wanted to spend more or less, there’s a plethora of apartments available. But to just want Normal is starting to ask too much. Normal is becoming an endangered species, a dying breed.
We’re considered to be “middle class”, whatever that is anymore. But we feel pressures closing in on us from above and below, almost like we’re being ordered by unseen forces to pick one, to choose a side.
Trouble is, we don’t have the money (or the desire) to pull a Jeffersons and go “movin’ on up”, nor do we want to slide down the socioeconomic ladder–we’ve been there and done that. We’ve been there and done both, actually, and each has its own unique way of siphoning away one’s spirit.
We’re not alone. By now it’s no secret that America’s middle class is disappearing.
What happened to America’s middle class?
I don’t have easy answers, hard evidence, or crunchy numbers, but I’m hardly ever short on theories.
My theory can be summed up in a single word: stratification.
Oh my. What on earth is that??
“the arrangement or classification of something into different groups”
Some of this is our own collective fault, generally speaking.
But not all of it. Some of it is being done for us.
I’m not sure when it started; it has probably always been there. There have always been rich and poor. Hell, even the Romans had a middle class, a group that, much like today’s contemporary version, bears much of the burden of sustaining those above and below.
I won’t theorize on the various causes or contributors in this post, although I have my theories about that, too, which will probably get a post of their own. I’m guessing Robert Kiyosaki, a sleazy, slippery smooth-talker who convinced the American public that they were entitled to make their entire living via passive income and retire at age 35-40 in Fiji, doing and producing absolutely nothing, which drove up the demand for certain types of businesses and properties, which of course priced them out of the realistic grasp of most Americans. But although his books no doubt served as contemporary catalysts for the recent and current booms (and some busts), I’m not sure he’s entirely to blame. I’m actually placing my biggest and surest bets on the greed and laziness of the average American who indeed feels entitled to contribute squat to society and reap the fruits of the high life in return.
(Maybe that’s exactly it, and I won’t need to write a separate post about the “why”s.)
These trends, waves, and movements brought us here, to where we sit today. The average American community can be divided, more sharply now than ever before, into the Haves and the Have-Nots. The only difference between now and then is that the division seems more obvious, more sharply outlined and defined.
I’m not talking about the age-old class warfare, about the Bourgeois and the Proletariat. That’s old and tired news, and there are holes in that story.
Rather, I’m talking about the fact that Walmart has tried to implement a sushi bar (as one example).
Which brings me to this post’s originally-intended topic: the evidence of this stratification, and the additional corporate efforts to further stratify the American populace.
I’ve slowly watched the world around me transform from a predominantly middle class landscape, dotted by a few upper-scale districts with luxury item stores, and a few lower-tier areas with stores aimed at that demographic, to a clearly-defined fine line between the two extremes of the socioeconomic spectrum, with very little in between anymore.
What’s up with that? Can’t I just have “normal”? Can’t I simply shop for regular clothes at fair prices and a certain standard of durability anymore? Can’t we find a reasonably-priced house in a regular neighborhood next to normal people who have lived in the area for a while anymore? Doesn’t the local grocery store have regular food anymore?
The answer, to all of the above, sadly, is: nope. Not anymore.
If you want housing, you’re going to have to decide between the yuppie neighborhood with the draconian homeowners association (and its exorbitant monthly fees and overreaching rules), or the cranked-out-en-masse shoebox houses with zero neighborhood ambiance and even fewer trees, next to 20-something neighbors with too many kids in too many diapers (which can be detected by the nose during any neighborhood walk on a hot afternoon), who think nothing of cranking the tunes or the muscle car at 1am.
It doesn’t get any better in other sectors, either. Clothing? Heh. You’re either going to pay $70+ for a freaking shirt at Nordstrom’s or $14 for one at Walmart that will begin to fall apart after the second washing.
Cars: Kia used to have a buy-one-get-one incentive (which should be a red flag for anyone with critical thinking skills), or you can lease (get fleeced) a Beemer at $600/month.
I perceive television as a reflection of society–at least, a common denominator of it. And the socioeconomic stratification is most efficiently observed on the various cable channels.
When I watch top-tier channels like National Geographic or Smithsonian, I see commercials for Lexus, Audi, Infiniti, Christian Dior, Armani, and diamonds and whatnot. On HLN or the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), the scenery is radically different: prescription drug commercials constitute the backbone, dotted with ads for auto insurance in which the target market includes those who are currently driving without insurance, or those who total their vehicles and are gullible and unthinking enough to fall for “accident forgiveness” coverage.
It costs money to live the yuppie dream, but it also costs money to be broke/poor.
Oh, the irony.
Not to mention karma: nothing like kicking someone when they’re down.
The problem with the contemporary push toward the socioeconomic sky is several-fold.
First, those seeking passive income threw themselves into flipping houses and businesses, driving up the costs of both. Owning property and working for oneself are indeed the two sides of the American Dream Coin, the historically dearly-held symbols of ultimate freedom. The beauty of that American Dream was that anyone and everyone had the opportunity to go for it, and it was indeed doable for most. These days, for many (and I would say most), the American Dream is a lot further away–practically unattainable.
I’ve watched stores move up and down the ladder, too. Whole Foods Market was once a bastion of bulk teas and herbs, exotic fringe superfoods, and a wide selection of encapsulated medicinal formulas. Most of the employees had long hair, no matter what their gender, and wore rainbow tie-dye shirts.
These days? Not anymore. The bulk section eroded away like topsoil, in favor of prepackaged, less-fresh, more-expensive varieties. The exotic superfoods gave way to clothes from Cambodia. Gone are the tie-dyes and the long-haired males, replaced by clean-cut, clean-shaven guys, and business casual attire.
Every store either wants to gentrify, moving further upscale and ever-more corporate, or embrace their Inner Slacker/Hipster, and cater to the downtrodden.
Because there’s money to be made at the yin and yang ends of the socioeconomy; there seems to be less to be made in the middle. The well-to-do are willing and able to shell out the big bucks; the less-wealthy often have no choice. The dollar amounts parted with usually differ widely, but the actual impact is similar.
Luxury items are often overpriced. Consider cars, for instance: a Lexus is just a suped-up Toyota, an Infiniti is simply a Nissan with a different emblem, a Cadillac is a GM/Chevy under an alias, and a Lincoln (or, these days, a Ferrari, for that matter) is nothing but a Ford with a few more options–and of course, an inflated sticker price.
Interestingly, some Toyotas are actually more posh than some Lexuses. A fully-loaded Toyota will do more than a bare-bones Lexus, and yet, the Lexus will generally cost more–usually to the tune of an extra 50% more, says my superficial, eyeballed research. 😉
Consider housing as another example. That exclusive neighborhood is going to cost you, too. I’ve heard of anywhere from $500-1600/year.
However, being less financially well-endowed will cost you, too. Renting furniture can cost $80+ per month, and doing a week’s worth of laundry at the laundromat can drain $20-40 in quarters pretty fast.
Unsavory apartment landlords can weasel sleazy terms into an apartment lease, which swindle your security deposit out from under you in not so many words.
Not being able to afford a house costs opportunities, too–opportunities to build equity, as opposed to throwing money away in rent (like we currently have to), opportunities to build (or rebuild) credit, and so on, are lost. Many apartments don’t come with garages or storage space, so a storage facility can tack on another $100+ in monthly expense.
And of course, not having top-tier credit leads to higher interest rates when applying for a loan, and may result in denial or having to opt for a sub-prime loan, which comes with higher costs and extra fees.
Being rich costs money, to keep up with the Joneses, whoever the hell they are, and whoever the hell deemed them to be the ultimate authority on what the American Dream should look like.
And being poor/broke costs plenty of money, too. Primarily because they’re trapped, with next to no other options. It feels almost parasitic.
Where the middle class went depends on how they fared during the Great Recession (which I’m calling what it is: a second Great Depression), and also the years before and after (actually, I would say we’re still in it, although maybe not quite as severely or obviously).
If a middle class person or family was able to hang onto their decent job and maintain their income level, or if they were able to keep moving up, then they probably fared pretty well, and they might be slowly getting absorbed by the upper class. They’ve probably been able to adjust to the “yuppification” of many run-of-the-mill chain stores, complete with the higher prices they now demand.
However, if they got downsized, ousted during a merger, automated by robots, outsourced to people overseas, or otherwise let go, or if their company folded entirely, or if they had to take a pay cut to keep their job, or they faced a catastrophe (usually medical) that demanded a lot more than they had, it was Middle Class Game Over.
Too many unforeseeable, uncontrollable wild cards in the latter scenario, and too many got snagged by them, through no fault of their own.
And I have seen the chasm widening, in the caliber of commercials aired on TV, the ever-changing, stealthily-evolving store aisles, or in the rare event that I walk down the mall hallways. They’re catering either to the very top or the very bottom of the financial spectrum.
Oh, sure, there are some commercials for regular products, aimed at the middle class left. I mean, who doesn’t need toilet paper? And despite the turning tide against chemicals, there’s the ever-steady supply of ads for cleaning products. And we haven’t socioeconomically stratified diapers and processed food yet, either–although commercials for fast food chains are hinting away.
What’s really interesting is watching all of these chain stores, who might have been middle class before, content with being “regular” and content in their contentment, suddenly start undergoing a major, massive overhaul. Sometimes the headliner is the boastful centerpiece wine bar (I saw what you did there, Whole Foods), and that’s the extent of it. Or the newly unveiled sushi bar at one of the local flagship Walmarts (really, Walmart?). And I was working at Red Lobster at the time they came out with their new wine list and a complete course of training on how to suggest wine properly paired with someone’s desired meal, how to present the wine, how to open the bottle at their table, how to have them swish, sniff, and sip the wine, and all that jazz.
It seemed like before the 20-ohs, certain entities (such as stores, but not limited to stores) knew their place and had their niche. There were businesses for everyone to support, and everyone had places to which they could go and be reasonably satisfied. Everybody was happy.
Except maybe the shareholders. Shareholders are very demanding, high-maintenance little brats. And the legislation enacted in the last 100 years supports them…at the expense of all other interests, including morality. That topic will get its own post, I promise.
Shareholders expect the moon, and thus, businesses were legally obligated to deliver it.
Businesses either had to take the proverbial elevator to the next socioeconomic “floor”, and start wooing and catering to those with deeper pockets but trendier tastes (Whole Foods, you’ve changed, man!), or they had to take that symbolic elevator down a level or two and start cutting quality corners (I saw that, Target), quietly importing more products from overseas (Walmart, don’t think I didn’t see that), running loss leading sales (Kohl’s, I haven’t talked about you in a while, but the shoe fit), and so on.
In came the facelifts, the logo changes, the updated slogans and taglines, the store or website layout transformations, and so on.
For the sakes of change and pacifying open-beaked shareholders, the commercial landscape–both on TV and at the overcrowded shopping areas near you–have undergone a major reincarnation, almost as if they’re ashamed of their previous identity and seeking to reinvent themselves. Most had nothing to be ashamed of in the first place (they probably have more to be ashamed of now), but meh–to each their own, I guess.
Meanwhile, the middle class gets screwed somewhat, because we either have to cough up funds we can’t quite afford, or we have to “settle” for getting gouged for cheap stuff with hardly any return on the investment, only to have to buy the same item (or seek the same service) again within a short timeframe.
I guess I’m just craving a little balance, a less polarized existence, a diminishing of the sensation of being forced into one cattle corral or the other, a lifting of the feeling of continuously being left behind, left out, ignored as though I don’t even exist, just because I can’t be shaken down and soaked for extra money. And I know I’m not alone. The middle class does indeed comprise the majority of the country, even if that’s not convenient for those who seek to gouge by paying special attention to one end of the socioeconomic gradient or the other.
If the business landscape has anything to be ashamed of, it’s making that many people feel that insignificant.
I’ve said my piece(s). 😉