THE NEW REALITY
Since the 1950s, what we've considered the American experience —be it sock hopping, suburban living, or SUV buying—has been largely dictated by the professional middle class. In her 1989 social critique, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, Barbara Ehrenreich defined this mainstream population in terms of education, occupation, lifestyle, and tastes, but also in terms of income. “Middle class couples,” she wrote, “earn enough for home ownership in a neighborhood inhabited by other members of their class; college educations for the children; and such enriching experiences as vacation trips, psychotherapy, fitness training, summer camp and the consumption of ‘culture’ in various forms.”1
This thriving middle class didn't develop by accident. It emerged with the introduction of government and social policies designed to lift the country out of the Great Depression and sustain economic health in the postwar era. By the 1950s, a combination of social programs including Social Security, unemployment insurance, the GI Bill, and federal housing loans helped middle-class salaries stretch. Employers supplied health insurance and pensions. A surge in suburban building made housing widely accessible. You no longer had to be a doctor or a businessman to afford a two-story colonial with a dishwasher and a color TV. For a white male supporting a family— the typical middle-class profile at the time—it was possible to work in an array of professions whereby you didn't necessarily get rich, but you could count on being fairly comfortable. A house, a job, a car or two in the garage, a fun summer vacation, these were absolute indicators of middle-class success.