Keeping it (middle) classy

Erik Hansen is a graduate student pursuing a master of public policy and Mustang Daily graduate columnist.

This past September, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report on its findings in regards to downward mobility from the American middle class. The report found that of those surveyed — adults who had grown up in a middle class household — 28 percent had fallen out of the middle class.

When the Pew publishes something, it’s worth reading; as a non-profit, non-governmental institution with more than 60 years of providing non-partisan, fact-based research, they are typically able to rise above the type of reporting you’ll get with MSNBC or Fox News, which — like most “news” sources today — only serve to reinforce the skewed system of beliefs of their occupier/teabagger audiences (sentence inserted to add controversy).

Terms such as “middle class” and “American Dream” can mean different things to different people, and are often hijacked by politicians to evoke some type of emotion. However, for the purposes of the Pew report, the term “middle class” is defined in a quantitative manner: a household falling between the 30th and 70th percentiles of the family-size-adjusted income distribution. Because the report surveyed those who were between the ages of 14 to 17 in 1979, using the Pew’s definition of middle class, this means that those surveyed:

- grew up in a household with an income of approximately $33,000 to $64,000 (in 2010 dollars) for a family with two adults and two children; and

- would now need to have a household income of approximately $54,00 to $111,000 (in 2010 dollars), for a family with two adults and two children, to remain in the middle class.

A large number of news/media outlets and lefty and righty blogs picked up on the Pew report. While most saw only doom and gloom in the report, a small number saw lessons learned, and insight into how one can remain, statistically, as “horizontally” mobile as possible. Their conclusions:

Get more than a high school education

If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably already taken one of the first steps towards horizontal mobility, as both men and women who were raised in middle class homes were more likely to fall out of the middle class if they didn’t attempt some form of post-secondary education.

Like most other factors, the percent chance for downward mobility varies slightly by gender. Women with only a high school diploma or less were about 10 and 16 percent more likely to fall out of the middle class than those with some college or a college degree, respectively. For men with only a high school diploma or less, they were about 13 and 7 percent more likely to fall out of the middle class than those with some college or a college degree, respectively.

Stay away from hard drugs

For the purposes of the Pew report, hard drugs — or sketchy drugs — were defined as heroin and crack cocaine. Party drugs — or fun drugs — were also surveyed as a part of the report; however, their effect on mobility was much less pronounced than that of hard drugs.

Women who used crack cocaine were 13 percent more likely to fall out of the middle class than those who had never used crack, and, oddly enough, women who used heroin were 16 percent less likely to fall out of the middle class than those who had never used heroin. This is an anomaly that is most likely explained by the fact that so few women sampled had ever used heroin, and the results were skewed.

As for the men, those who used crack cocaine were 14 percent more likely to fall out of the middle class than those who had never used crack, and those who used heroin were 26 percent more likely to fall out of the middle class than those who had never used heroin.

The party drugs surveyed included marijuana and powder cocaine. Interestingly, the Pew report found that, respectively, women and men were 4 and 1 percent less likely to fall out of the middle class if they had smoked marijuana more than 10 times. As for cocaine, women who used were 8 percent more likely to fall out of the middle class than those who had never used cocaine, and men who used were 7 percent more likely to fall out of the middle class than those who had never used cocaine.

Get married and stay married

This factor can also include common-law marriages and civil unions, just as long as the two partners stay together.

While it is rather off-putting to tell someone that they need to get married and stay married — as many people are choosing to remain unmarried today — the numbers are hard to argue with.

Setting aside living expenses, the U.S. Census found that in 2008, duel income households had an average annual income of $86,621. In that same year, the average single male householder had an average annual income of $43,571, and the average single female householder had an average annual income of $30,129. If the average single male or female householder has or wants to have children, then they risk falling below the 30th percentile of the family-size-adjusted income distribution, and out of the middle class (children are another issue all together, with the Wall Street Journal stating that in 2009, the average child now costs about $222,000 to raise until 18).

The Pew report found that, respectively, never married women and men were 17 and 10 percent more likely to fall out of the middle class than those who had married and stayed together. These numbers jump to 36 and 13 for women and men, respectively, who were separated, divorced or widowed.

So there you have it kids, get a college education, stay off the hard stuff and get, and stay, married. Oh, and while you’re at it, have two kids, join the Kiwanis and PTA and buy a house with a white picket fence. You too can attain the middle class lifestyle you’ve always dreamed of. </sarcasmoff>