As memories of the harsh recession years are washed away by a wave of stories about the soaring stock market and hot tech IPOs, it is worth noting that the death of America's mythical "middle class" continues apace.
The official unemployment rate now stands at 6.7%—bad by the standards of America's good times, but not so bad compared to where it stood in the wake of the global economic collapse five years ago. This does not, though, represent an incredible triumph in opportunity. The new front in the war on poverty is the lower middle class. This is the class that was formerly known as "the middle class," until the ongoing trends of increasing economic inequality, concentration of wealth at the very top, decline of organized labor, and the rise of brutal, dead-end McJobs squeezed millions of working Americans out of the middle and into the low end of the economic spectrum. Here is where we stand now, via Steven Greenhouse:
More than half of those who make $9 or less an hour are 25 or older, while the proportion who are teenagers has declined to just 17 percent from 28 percent in 2000, after adjusting for inflation, according to Janelle Jones and John Schmitt of the Center for Economic Policy Research.
Today's low-wage workers are also more educated, with 41 percent having at least some college, up from 29 percent in 2000. "Minimum-wage and low-wage workers are older and more educated than 10 or 20 years ago, yet they're making wages below where they were 10 or 20 years ago after inflation," said Mr. Schmitt, senior economist at the research center.
The extent to which America's economic abundance is being closed off to vast swaths of our population is truly remarkable. During the same years that the US stock market was more than doubling its value, the number of public school students receiving free breakfasts at school rose by 19%. The life expectancy of residents in our nation's poorest counties is similar to the life expectancy of people in Iraq. And the downward suction of wages that has enriched stockholders and corporate executives has also succeeded in producing a lower middle class (and lower class) full of college-educated working parents who cannot afford to care for their children. Long term unemployment is an awful and persistent plague; but even those who are fortunate enough to land a job can be almost certain that the job they land will not be enough to raise them out of the bleeding edge of poverty.
And we still can't manage to raise the national minimum wage. Something's gotta give.
[Photo: Flickr. If you want to share your story of minimum wage work, email Hamilton@Gawker.com]