I’ve been enjoying the special series npr is currently running, “Living In the Middle,” which highlights middle-class American families. Some of the families they have interviewed are struggling to make ends meet, some are making it (just), and others are living frugally but comfortably. I find it an interesting topic because my idea of what constitutes “middle class” has changed so much since moving from the U.S., to a country where most people really are middle class, where the gap between rich and poor is not so obvious.
Because I haven’t lived in the U.S. in several years, I’ve also missed the effects of the recession on the average American, though I’ve certainly read and heard about it from family and friends. When we visited for a month this summer, I could see first-hand the changes, and they were apparent in the many closed businesses and home foreclosures (my husband and I sitting transfixed for an entire evening in front of the real estate channel—“A nice-looking house for $30,000?!? How is that even possible?”).
I’ve always been middle-class. I come from a middle-class family (who come from middle-class families themselves) and I’ve created my own version with my husband and children. I can remember there being money worries growing up, but my father always worked and we always had a house to live in. My husband and I are both educated, we’ve never been unemployed for more than a few months, and during those times we’ve managed to keep things going with little difficulty. Since moving to France our income has decreased substantially, but we’ve also bought an apartment and manage nicely (albeit in our own unpretentious way. Big spenders we are not.)
I think the idea of somehow not being middle-class, of becoming poor because of unfortunate circumstances or a failing economy, has never really seemed real to me. And yet that must be the experience of many former middle-class families and the very real fear of many who are living in the precarious territory of “the middle”. I’ve been impressed by the stories of how a single mom manages her budget to make sure she can provide for her two teenage daughters, and of the family who chose to give up the rat race and are living more simply.
On the other hand, I can’t imagine being rich, either. It’s so totally out of my frame of reference that I’ve never even considered how our lives might be different if we had high-paying jobs or a sudden windfall. I don’t dreaming of making it big; my dreams are pretty small and attainable. Given the current economic climate, that’s probably a good thing. I think there’s a good life to be found in the middle for those who are lucky enough to be here.