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The Diminishing Middle — And Why That Widens The Gap Between Us


I was thinking about a friend of mine from back in the day. Or, more accurately, I was thinking about his parents, who were — how should I put this? — special.

Don't get me wrong: They were the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. They were warm and welcoming, they were travelers, they were interesting.

But they had a very, let's say, distinct perspective about a lot of social issues. They really felt that just about any problem you could think of was easily solved with a comfortable pair of walking shoes and an in-ground swimming pool.

You think I'm kidding? My friend was in public health, so his conversations were often about public health issues. And when it came up that African-American kids disproportionately suffered drowning deaths — because swimming pools in the U.S. had been segregated for so long, generations of black people never learned how to swim — his parents said, "Why didn't their parents just put a pool in their back yards?"

When my friend brought up some of the issues related to the fact that millions of Americans at that time didn't have health insurance, they said, "Why, what you need is a comfortable pair of walking shoes and a healthy diet — and you should be all set."

Of course, I found them hilarious because they weren't my parents. And yes, I gave them a pass because they weren't born in this country. And sure, there was a shred of truth in their idea that if the society doesn't provide what you need, your only choice is try to find a way to do for yourself somehow.

But there was a reason they drove their own kids crazy, my friend included. His parents were hard-working people, but both had been born into families of means. As adults they did even better, and except for the war years, they had never known any deprivation, did not know anyone who had, and were generally oblivious to the realities of people not like them. Not mean, not hateful — just oblivious.

Can I just tell you? I thought about them when I read the Pew Research Center study earlier this month about the decline of the American middle class. The study says that after more than four decades as the nation's economic majority, more people are now either upper-income or lower-income.

The study goes on to say that is, in one sense, a sign of progress, because more people moved into the upper tier than were added to the lower. But it also meant that upper-income families now control a much larger share of the the nation's wealth than ever before.

Fully 49 percent of the nation's aggregate income went to upper-income households in 2014, up from 29 percent in 1970. The share that went to middle-income households was 43 percent in 2014, far less than in 1970.

Even more worrisome, middle-income Americans have fallen further behind in the new century. According to the report, in 2014 the median income of these households was 4 percent less than in 2000, and because of all the issues you probably know about — the housing crisis, the Great Recession — their median wealth has fallen by a staggering 28 percent from 2013.

Why does this matter? It matters because anybody who has ever climbed a ladder knows it's a lot harder to jump the rungs than it is to take them one at a time. You can do it, but it's harder. It also matters because the people in the middle often have a foot in both worlds — the world of plenty and the world of make-do (and do without).

That's why I thought of my friends' parents. They literally could not understand why, if you couldn't go to a public pool, you didn't just build your own, because they didn't understand not having a backyard.

Perhaps that is why the politics of the moment sound so extreme. Because the middle is hollowing, and the ends of the spectrum cannot hear each other except when they shout.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.