The couple from Culpeper, Va., were already masters at scrimping.
Their optimism exceeds that of many other Americans, despite their low economic status.
But reliable transportation was not a luxury, so in late February the couple bought a used 2012 Dodge Caliber. As a result, they’ve fallen behind in the electric bills for March and April.
The Johnsons both work, earning $90,000 between them, not a princely sum but one that places the couple squarely in the middle of household incomes for the Washington region. But for the Johnsons and many other American families, being middle class means living paycheck to paycheck.
The couple’s retirement savings are meager. The college fund? Nonexistent.
The Johnsons, whose blended family includes three children under 18, are part of a drawn-out, disquieting shift that is recasting what it means to be middle class in America.
“I don’t know how the working class, anyone below the middle class, how they can survive,” says Scott, 48, who works as an IT engineer at a hospital. “Once some bills are paid and we’ve gone grocery shopping, we don’t have enough to pay the other bills.’’
The problems of an anxiety-ridden middle class have grabbed the attention of politicians and scholars — and become the centerpiece of President Obama’s second-term agenda. “Every single day, I’m going to fight for these priorities: To shift the odds back in favor of more working- and middle-class families and to keep America where you can always make it if you try,” he said in a recent address.
Wages for millions of American workers, particularly those without college degrees, have flat-lined. Census figures show the median household income in 2012 was no higher than it was 25 years ago. Men’s median wages were lower than in the early 1970s.
Meanwhile, many of the expenses associated with a middle-class life have increased beyond inflation. This includes college tuition, whose skyrocketing cost has laid siege to a bedrock principle of the American Dream: that your children will do better than you did.
A recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and the Miller Center at the University of Virginia found that 40 percent of those calling themselves middle class felt less financially secure than they were just a few years ago. Forty-five percent said they worry “a lot” about having enough money stashed away for retirement, and 57 percent said they worry about meeting their bills. Less than half said they expect their kids to do any better.
Fewer Americans find themselves in the heart of the middle class with every passing year.
In the mid-1970s, the majority of Americans were in the middle, with 52 percent earning the equivalent (in today’s dollars) of $35,000 to $100,000. Today, according to census figures, the share of households earning under $35,000 is virtually unchanged, 35 percent. The shift has occurred in the other two categories. Households with incomes over $100,000 have doubled, to 22 percent, while less than 44 percent are in the middle cluster.
The Johnsons’ $90,000 income is higher than the national household median of $51,000, as well as the $66,500 median in Virginia. But in the broader Washington region that Culpeper is part of, where the median income is $88,000, the Johnsons are just about average.
“On the one hand, $90,000 sounds like a lot to most middle-class Americans, because most Americans don’t earn that,” said Joseph Cohen, a sociologist at Queens College in New York City. “But the fact is, the median-income American does not do well in a lot of respects. One $5,000 home repair can wipe out their surplus for a year. A medical event, an auto repair or a temporary job loss can exert a large shock.
“America is a place where luxuries are cheap and necessities costly. A big-screen TV costs much less than it does in Europe, but health care will sink you.”