Together, decreases in income and increases in living costs are the combined factors that will put more and more of us in the food lines. In a way, Paul and his family are solidly in the middle class, a middle class newly defined as not quite able to afford the necessities of life.
The imbalance is continuing even if, by academic measures, the recession is over. The engine of this financial imbalance for the middle class is another imbalance: wealth and income inequity. By all indications, the financial assault on working people will continue.
Oil is now hovering at $90 a barrel and the average national gasoline price is set to break $3.00 a gallon any moment. Not only is this more money out of the pockets of Americans, most of whom must drive to work, it threatens another round of layoffs should demand for goods and services fall as a result.
In a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, global food prices are forecast to spike over the coming decade. The report concludes that demand for food from developing countries will outstrip even an increased production supply.
But inflation over the past ten years has been tame, right? Wrong, whenever you hear a report of "core inflation," just remember that number does not include two categories that affect working people the most: food and energy. Shelter costs, that spiked with the bank fashioned housing bubble, have also thrown many middle class families into financial turmoil.
The only good news on the horizon is in the area of housing where costs are predicted to fall. But moving is expensive and foreclosures will soon return to historic high levels as soon as the banks sort out their questionable procedures for putting people out on the street.
So, what does it take to be middle class today? That depends, and it's not necessarily an income number, though many analysts throw around income from $70,000 to $100,000. Tell that to Joan. You'll need to be able to sustain those dollars year after year without much in the way of cash flow interruption.
To be middle class, paying for all the vital and frivolous "necessities" of American adult life, you do need an income, usually from a job.
If it took education to get the training or degree needed for that job, subtract the cost of student loan repayment. Then you need housing at a cost that fits that income, and transportation that provides a reliable way for you to do what you need to do to earn that income.
As you would like to have more in your life, like a spouse and/or children your income needs may change, i.e. increase substantially. But because life is generally unpredictable you also need to be able to afford at least some insurance, auto, home and medical, to smooth those costs.
To be middle class, you will also need the one thing the current economic and socio-political situation refuses to oblige: stability.
You need to know that at least most of the important things that you've build your life on will not disappear tomorrow. For example, the job that expensive education bought will not be down-sized, right-sized, off-shored, out-sourced or become obsolete and eliminated altogether.
Unfortunately, that modicum of stability no longer exists. Too many things that put your stability at risk are out of your control.
It may not seem possible, but in today's global corporate market, your job could be history tomorrow.
The probability that you will need to retrain for another job, no matter how old you are, is high and today education is very expensive and may mean becoming a debtor in a big way.