Friday, February 17, 2012

Behind the scenes of this week's cover story: why we care about the middle class

Posted By on Fri, Feb 17, 2012 at 2:48 PM

Growing up, my father told me that our country was great for someone not to get rich fast but to get rich slow. You always hear about rags-to-riches stories. But my dad thought that if you worked hard you could build a good life for yourself — and a better one for your kids. When thinking about greatness, he looked a couple generations down the road.

My dad never graduated college. He worked for one insurance company for over 25 years. The company gave him a good paycheck and a good pension and good health care. He was able to buy a house and largely put me through college. When I think about what it means to be middle class, I think about my father. 

The era of one-job careers, company pensions and a life without higher education is almost gone. But what is replacing it? 

We at The Inlander figured that if politicians tromping around to campaign events all year could invoke the "Middle Class," so should we. After all, you hear those two words spoken like it's the name of some ancient mythical tribe. And that's why we wanted to write about what "middle class" means for Spokane, and what kinds of struggles the middle class faces.

I did that for this week's cover story, "The Incredible Disappearing Middle Class." I spoke to people trying find work — men and women who have worked hard to make better lives for themselves. A Navy Veteran. An African immigrant. A woman who went back to school later in life to earn two college degrees. I wanted to know what they worried about, what they dreamed about.

I also spoke to a litany of professors, think-tank specialists and regional economists. I want to know how and why Spokane — and the United States — is different now for workers than in the past.

It paints a bleak picture when you pair the personal stories with the trends. The reality of modern America is that, because of stagnant wages, increased costs for schooling and health care and persistent unemployment, it's going to be hard for this generation to end up better off than their parents.

If you want to read more about the middle class in America, check out these two stories from The Atlantic. The first is a deep look into the question it proposes called "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?" The second, "Making It in America," is a look into how manufacturers are producing a lot but hiring fewer and more skilled workers.

Can we return to a country that makes life better for each generation? If so, who is going to lead us there?

Wish I knew. That would make for a really great story to write.

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