Measures to improve middle class outcomes are attainable

It’s not just those who live on minimum wage or less who struggle in our coastal communities: The middle class nationwide is having to grapple with a compression in income prospects at the same time certain categories of expenses gobble money the way hungry cormorants eat little fish.

The definition of “middle class” is a bit slippery. The median household income in Oregon is $56,835, ranking 13th in the nation and well above the U.S. average of $51,939. Half make more and half make less. For many in Pacific County, this will seem to be an extraordinarily high sum. But well-established adults — particularly if there are two wage-earners at home — may do this well or better, even in comparatively low-wage rural areas of the Pacific Northwest. Even so, by the end of each month, there are countless families who wonder how to fill gas tanks and restock groceries with emptied checking accounts and relentless expenses.

This is a nationwide problem. “A study by the Center for American Progress shows just how heavy the burden has grown: For a typical married couple with two children, the combined cost of child care, housing, health care and savings for college and retirement jumped 32 percent from 2000 to 2012 — and that’s after adjusting for inflation. Compounding the pain is that average pay for Americans is barely topping inflation,” the Associated Press reported last week.

For most, the issue is not so much the basic costs of living. For all their flaws, globalization, mechanization and corporate farming produce the food and accessories of modern life at a monetary cost that our ancestors would find miraculous. “America is a place where the luxuries are cheap and the necessities are expensive,” a professor observed in the story.

From 2000 to 2012 average healthcare and college costs soared more than 80 percent, according to AP. In Washington state, a court-order funding increase for K-12 public schools may dictate additional double-digit tuition increases at major public universities in the next two years. Currently, a four-year degree at the University of Washington costs $50,000 for tuition alone, plus a host of other educational and living expenses.

As a practical matter, rising costs for things like college mean it will be more challenging for young people to find a permanent place in the middle class. Once-essential stepping stones, like buying a home, are increasingly deferred indefinitely while paying off student loans. Spikes in healthcare costs, meanwhile, mean that any middle-class person is only one disaster away from falling out of financial security.

Fixing any of this is a tall order in today’s political and economic culture. However, we know from past experience that the nation has much to gain by keeping college and other types of educational options affordable. Steps like tying maximum annual loan repayment amounts to income have genuine promise of building a middle class for the 21st century.

We also must continue to work on improving the Affordable Healthcare Act, not scrapping it.

The ability to repair the damage to the American Dream is in the hands of the president and Congress. They must work together to restore fair, income-based taxation and protect American jobs from predatory corporate bosses.

A viable middle class is a result of rational and attainable policy decisions. We must make a better effort to implement them.

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