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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Worthy traits fuel middle class in increasingly uphill race
TERRE HAUTE —
We live in the Ricky Bobby Decade.
- Opinion Columns
RONN MOTT: Knicks
The big noise in the NBA is whether Carmelo Anthony will stay with the New York Knicks or go elsewhere.
If my memory serves, and it doesn’t always, Carmelo left the Denver Nuggets, the team that drafted him, to play in the bright lights of the Big Apple. It was loudly proclaimed at the time that Carmelo wanted to play for a championship team. The Knicks’ ownership bought a bunch of players and spent a whole bunch of money to aid Carmelo in helping the Knicks to get to a championship.
RONN MOTT: Abraham Lincoln and George Washington
I remember when by edict the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were lumped into a single celebration called “Presidents Day.” I thought it was stupid then, and I still do.
LIZ CIANCONE: Antiques show better than any modern programs
I’m not a big fan of television.
KELLY HAWES: It’s time to take politics out of redistricting
A bill to form a bipartisan redistricting commission apparently died in the Indiana Senate last week.
MARK BENNETT: People spaces
Demolition machinery chipped away at the buildings on the 500 block of Wabash Avenue. I stood and watched awhile, last week. By July 2015, a new $18.7-million structure will replace those relics.
THOMAS L. STEIGER: Creativity requires freedom from the risks of failure
Last week I wrote about the themes that emerged from the panel discussion by five Wabash Valley members of the “creative class.”
Flashpoint: Everyone would benefit from responsibly expanding health coverage for Hoosiers
A medical epidemic is one of the worst scenarios a hospital can face — when a significant portion of the population is suddenly struck with a life-threatening illness.
RONN MOTT: Independent thinking in a rapidly changing world
I am a rather independent person. Oh, I don’t belong to any radical, political organization.
RONN MOTT: Ukraine
It’s quiet in Ukraine as I write this but, trust me, it won’t be quiet very long.
RONN MOTT: The Olympics
In the medal count in the Olympics, we ended in second place. In times past, without infusion of money, training, etc., second place might have been OK. For this sports-crazy nation, it is not OK.
LIZ CIANCONE: Preference wins over etiquette every time
It’s a source of amusement to me when I read about the trivia which concerns some folks.
THOMAS L. STEIGER: Fostering creativity prime mission in teaching
As part of ISU’s College of Arts and Science’s Community Semester program, I organized a panel discussion on creativity by a panel of what some would call members of the Wabash Valley’s “creative class.”
MARK BENNETT: Blessings of a long, cold, snowy winter
As spring, summer arrive, Hoosiers will appreciate icy months (well, maybe a little)
RONN MOTT: Shirley Temple was sweet as you can be
The year I was born, Shirley Temple was the richest actress in America and, certainly, the most beloved of actresses as well.
RONN MOTT: The Olympics
I have to say these Olympics are doing well. Especially since it’s the Winter Olympics and they seem to be doing it without snow! It isn’t the first Olympics to manufacture snow for ski slopes and such, and the way the weather is going, it may not be the last.
RONN MOTT: Another death
Michael Dunn was attending his son’s wedding. With him, his fiance, or girlfriend, and he had driven her to a nearby convenience store, pulled up beside an SUV that was blaring its music loud enough to hear on the moon, and it made Dunn angry. An argument about the music ensued and it did not get quieter. Dunn said something to his lady friend about really hating this thug music. There was movement inside the SUV and Dunn said he saw the barrel of a shotgun and decided to defend himself. He shot up the SUV and killed a teenage boy.
LIZ CIANCONE: Valentine’s more fun when we were young
I, for one, am glad that it’s over and I have a year before I’m asked to buy a goodie for my valentine.
KIEL MAJEWSKI: Can’t we all just embrace the common good?
Note: After HJR-3 failed to pass the Indiana Senate, state Sen. Mike Delph of Carmel took to Twitter to air his views in a prolonged, frank series of tweets that drew much attention on Thursday and Friday. Delph supported HJR-3. This is my open letter to Senator Delph.
MARK BENNETT: Healing Indiana’s Achilles’ heel
Illinois served as the easy target.
At that moment.
RONN MOTT: Woody Allen
Woody Allen — writer, comedian, film maker, actor, director — has recently been accused of sexually molesting one of the adopted children of Mia Farrow. I don’t believe it.
MARK BENNETT: Quest for the perfect Valentine’s Day gesture may not involve gifts
You’ll need a broom, a pickup truck, trash bins, shop hooks and aspirin.
Filming a “Sanford and Son” remake? Preparing for the apocalypse?
RONN MOTT: Pete Seeger
I was saddened to learn that Pete Seeger had passed away. He died in his home along the Hudson River in upstate New York. You think of folk songs and you think of the hill country of the Appalachians, and perhaps the dusty plains of the American southwest. But Pete Seeger was born in New York City. He was born to musical parents and his father was studying folk music and going where it was played. Young Pete went with his dad.
LIZ CIANCONE: Why do we bother that rodent on a cold day?
I have a bone to pick with Punxsutawney Phil. I may have to get in line or take a number, but I am willing to wait it out.
MARK BENNETT: Yeah, yeah, yeah... For some grownups, first impression not so fab
We’re pretty smart here in middle America.
Our DNA carries the common-sense chromosome. From birth, Midwestern culture begins honing us into the most rational and perceptive of human beings. Sure, our prisons are full, but generally, we mean well. And we’re wise.
RONN MOTT: Is Mother Nature color-blind?
It would appear Mother Nature does not like the grays and browns of the winter season. The snow and ice barely gets off the ground by melting and, whop, we have another snow.
RONN MOTT: Illness
I suppose because it is in the mountains, the kids of Denver have missed some school because of snow days. But I think a great many are going to be really ill because of the way the Denver Broncos played in the Super Bowl.
RONN MOTT: Super Bowl sick
No sporting event in the history of mankind, not even the great, classic machine of death, the Roman Colosseum games, had so much pre-publicity as has Super Bowl 48.
LIZ CIANCONE: Few can top the tale of 18 cats
I joined the other ladies at the round table at the Sports Center the other morning, and someone asked Frieda about her cats.
MARK BENNETT: Remembering the less glitzy days on Manning’s road to the Super Bowl
A blur of memories.
They’ll flicker fast and furious tonight, like a spinning Rolodex, when Peyton Manning runs onto the MetLife Stadium turf in Jersey City, as a Denver Bronco, playing for a Super Bowl ring against the Seattle Seahawks. Most Hauteans will experience flashbacks, too.
RONN MOTT: The weather vs. football
When I was a boy and became aware of what I learned was football, it was in the 1940s, the season at the collegiate level was nine games.
- More Opinion Columns Headlines
- RONN MOTT: Knicks