Middle class on the precipice

/ 11 January 2006

Elizabeth Warren has a fascinating piece in this month’s issue of the Harvard Magazine. She carefully explores the economic data and asks why it is that middle class people are so financially vulnerable at this moment in the US. Is it because we’re such avid consumers, spending our money on all sorts of things we don’t need? (iPods, DVDs, etc. etc.) Or is something else going on? Warren writes:

"If families really are blowing their paychecks on designer clothes and restaurant meals, then the household expenditure data should show them spending more on these frivolous items than ever before. But the numbers don’t back up the claim.

A quick summary of the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey paints a very different picture of family spending. Consider what a family of four spends on clothing. Designer toddler outfits and $200 sneakers are favorite media targets, but when it is all added up, including the Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirts and Ray-Ban sunglasses, the average family of four today spends 33 percent less on clothing than a similar family did in the early 1970s. Overseas manufacturing and discount shopping mean that today’s family is spending almost $1,200 a year less than their parents spent to dress themselves."

She considers data on food, data on clothing, data on leisure time pursuits, etc., and concludes that "The real increases in family spending are for the items that make a family middle class and keep them safe (housing, health insurance), that educate their children (pre-school and college), and that let them earn a living (transportation, childcare, and taxes)."

Given all of the moaning and groaning that goes on when theologians consider the role of the mass media (and the subsequent consumer commodification that appears so inexorable and inevitable), it would behoove us to read this piece very carefully and discern if perhaps our exclamations about consumer culture have blinded us to the very real dilemmas growing out of a weakening government commitment to the common good.