If you’re a middle-class American afflicted with a persistent unease, an unsettling sense you are one inadvertent slip away from landing completely flat on your economic back you are not crazy, at least not on that account.
According to a new report by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, the latest of many recent studies with similar results, 43.9 percent of U.S. households are living on the “edge of financial collapse.” No doubt this news will be classified by said 43.9 percent as of the No Shit Sherlock variety. Nevertheless, this new (in the last couple of decades) increasingly vulnerable, nee precarious middle-class economic reality is one of the most under-heralded developments of the last twenty years, one that is inextricably linked to the economic warping of the nation through income inequality and connected to other deplorable developments, from the diminishment of unions, to the shifting of the tax burden downward, to a shrinking safety net, shamefully and inexplicably too infrequently noted or harped upon by the political sector, and perhaps worse, by the dauphins at major media outlets.
The fact that you may be an accident away from being stranded up shit creek isn’t accidental. A process initiated during the Reagan era and a conservative restructuring of society that has continued since has transferred risks from the government, and especially from employers and the private sector onto families. If there is a key factor explaining the alternate reality Republicans’, and more generally the wingtip shoe crowd practicing and covering politics in Washington’s estrangement from a clue about the lives of ordinary American citizens, it is distance from the centrality of this insecurity in the average American life.
The most conspicuous and hardly unexpected impact of decades of wage stagnation is that reduced income translates into little if any savings, which means being less prepared when adversity strikes on the individual level or the macro level (in other words, when the plutocrats fiddle away their incalculable excess gambling on derivatives, and smash the economy). In the event of the worst befalling you the one-percent that is paying you less the harder you work and fattening up its own nest egg is afforded the additional luxury of basking in schadenfreude, chiding you for your irresponsibility, you 47 percenter clown.
If you’re a member of the working class you had little difficulty grasping that the switch from guaranteed pensions to 401(k)’s was not undertaken on your behalf. On the longshot that you become overconfident about your looming retirement, Republicans are here to threaten your Social Security and Medicare, because they find them, you know, ideologically offensive. If you’re the extravagant type of worker who retains bleeding heart sentimentalities regarding the future of your children, you should know the combination of astronomically rising costs for college and the reduction in federal grants (government is too motherfucking big, motherfucker) you and yours are looking at a sizeable loan. Don’t complain, it’s good for the banks, I mean the job creators, and happy they must remain for the good of us all we are told by our plutocrat-pocketed Republican Party. Twenty years ago such loans were used to pay about 15% of students’ college costs; but now they are up to a third.
Of course, the real killer shark that is going to gobble you up after mutilating you handsomely first is health care costs, fear of which causes millions upon millions to live in terror of a health crisis whether they possess insurance or not, more than half of American bankruptcies due to medical costs. If you and your family are among the fortunate who have health insurance provided through an employer you pass your days in eternal terror you will lose your job, and hence your health insurance, meaning the real and ever present threat of ending up in very, very deep financial shit. Of course, fewer and fewer employers provide such coverage, and provide less and less of it. Likewise, any hypothetical liberty you may retain to change jobs, either for family reasons or ambition or any other sound or commendable justification remains fancifully hypothetical. This is the sort of freedom from the oppressive perils of big government you enjoy as an American citizen that those unfortunates living in every other modern democracy do not, thanks to the vicious propagandistic importuning of the public by the health insurance companies and their helpmates in the Republican Party. Something you probably haven’t noticed and wouldn’t be expected to is ERISA, or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. It was the law intended to guarantee that employers provide promised health insurance or disability benefits, or 401(k) funds when the need arises. But a conservative Supreme Court and conservative federal appeals courts have been chopping away at it over time, to the point very little still is “guaranteed.”
Then there’s the matter of housing insurance. 60% of American homeowners’ total net worth is in their homes (As a result of the bursting housing bubble, Americans lucky enough to own instead of rent has been reduced to a luckier few). As recently as a couple of decades ago insurance companies offered “guaranteed replacement cost” policies, meaning it was up to the insurance companies to calculate the cost of compensating you for the loss of your house. Ah, but those have been replaced by the lovingly euphemistic “extended replacement cost” policies insuring your home for a set amount, leaving it up to you to figure out the amount of plywood and bathroom tiles you’ll need if your house is demolished, and subsequently to purchase just the right amount of insurance. Purchase too much, and the insurance company rolls in the gravy at your expense; purchase too little, and I believe the technical term for your state of affairs is “fucked.”
The point is that altogether, as the results of these myriad studies and reports verify, middle class life is newly unstable, precarious and insecure, the security apparatus constructed through the post-war period designed to alleviate the risks implicit in modern economies and provide a modest degree of serenity systematically has been dismantled or peeled away by conservative hegemony over government policy, and the standard avariciousness of today’s corporate, financial and ownership elite.
Keep in mind that Mitt Romney and his Republican Party have taken notice of the 47 percenter layabouts living the life of sultans, failing to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives” unlike their job creator betters. So don’t bitch. Welcome to the new American middle-class jackpot.