News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

August 26, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Life at a lap down

Worthy traits fuel middle class in increasingly uphill race

TERRE HAUTE — We live in the Ricky Bobby Decade.

If you’re not first, you’re last — in terms of income, that is.

Most folks want more than they have. That’s why Powerball tickets sell. Yet, the reality spelled out in “Desiderata” by poet Max Ehrmann awaits the 99-percenters yearning to see how the other half lives. (I know, that math doesn’t add up, and that’s the problem. Wealth is not a 50-50 possibility. In America, the bottom 50 percent of taxpayers earns just 12.5 percent of total income, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation in Washington, D.C.)

Ehrmann wrote, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

Those who stare at the grass growing beneath the rich can be forgiven. That grass has gotten very green. From 1979 to 2007, the top 1 percent of the U.S. population, by income, saw its after-tax, inflation-adjusted income grow by 275 percent, according to the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office. By comparison — sorry, Mr. Ehrmann — incomes of the middle 60 percent of the population grew just under 40 percent in that same 28-year period. The Great Recession followed, and the middle class bore a more pronounced brunt.

The numbers seem to validate the motto of Will Ferrell’s NASCAR-drivin’ character in “Talladega Nights” — “If you’re not first, you’re last.” Translation: Unless you’re at the top, you’re sliding toward the bottom.

Those stats — revealed in a report issued last week by the Pew Research Center — could agitate folks in ways Ehrmann envisioned. Middle-class America has gotten smaller, less wealthy and less optimistic. In 1971, 61 percent of households fell in the middle-income tier. By last year, that block had dwindled to 51 percent. Through that 40-year period, only the upper-income group increased its share of the nation’s household incomes — growing from a 29-percent slice in 1971 to a 46-percent cut in 2011.

And people in the middle? They pulled in 62 percent of U.S. earnings four decades ago, but received 45 percent of household incomes last year.

Granted, some elevated their economic status as the upper-class expanded. But the upper-income tier grew by 6 percent of the U.S. population over those 40 years, while its wedge of the income pie increased by 17 percent, according to Pew’s analysis of U.S. Census figures.

Not surprisingly, a survey by Pew last month of middle-class adults — those with annual household incomes ranging from $39,418 to $118,255 — showed less faith in the future. Forty-three percent think their kids’ standard of living as adults will exceed their own, down from 51 percent in 2008.

This is not an eat-the-rich rant, though. To the contrary, a few other bits of news last week should inspire hope for, and about, Americans living in the middle.

Within that Pew survey lurks a lengthy blame list of parties deemed responsible for the middle-class slide. Below all the usual suspects — Congress (blamed by 62 percent), banks (54 percent), big corporations (47 percent), the Bush administration (44 percent), foreign competition (39 percent), and the Obama administration (34 percent) — lies a small but eye-opening response. Eight percent of the middle class pointed no fingers and instead placed the responsibility on themselves.

Such a trait, to man-up in the face of adversity, is unique to middle-class America.

Evidence of two other middle-class traits emerged last week, too.

In spite of thinner incomes, in spite of state legislatures and Congress allowing a college education to become less and less affordable for young Americans and their families, middle-class folks nonetheless are trying to see their kids earn that higher-ed diploma. The burden of growing student debt hits hardest on families in the middle — those earning too much to qualify for Pell Grants, and too little to pay the mortgage-sized bills for tuition and board outright, according to a study released Monday by the American Sociological Association. Students from families in the $40,000 to $59,000 income bracket assume an average of $6,000 more in debt than lower-income students; those in the $60,000 to $99,000 carry an average of $4,000 more than low-income families.

Rough as that road has gotten, those families still invest in a better future for their kids.

And then came another study, published last week by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. It found that middle-income Americans give a higher share of their discretionary income to charity than the wealthy. People bringing home $50,000 to $70,000 donated 7.6 percent of their income. Those earning six-figures gave an average of 4.2 percent to charity. Bill Tennis, executive director of Goodwill Industries of the Wabash Valley, told the Tribune-Star that his years of experience bear out the study’s findings.

“The low- and middle-income people are our more frequent donors,” Tennis said.

In “Talladega Nights,” Ricky Bobby has grown up living by a phrase uttered once by his hard-partying, race-car driving, absentee father — “If you’re not first, you’re last.” Decades later, when Ricky — struggling to save his withering NASCAR career — reunites with the old man, he reminds his father of that motto. Puzzled, his dad says he can’t remember saying such a thing, and was probably stoned if he did. The father tells Ricky, “That [motto] doesn’t make any sense at all. You can be second, third, fourth — hell, you can even be fifth.”

Good people shoulder responsibility, invest in their kids’ futures, and give to those less fortunate. And, they’re not always running at the front of the pack.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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