COMMENTARY: A view from the shrinking middle, looking out

Through a combination of previous economic events and the current political climate, I fear that the middle income family may someday become an endangered species.

Politicians of both parties promise to “help the middle class,” but we also know the mantra that “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer” will probably continue. Statistics point to most of economic recovery going to the top 1 percent, an increasing wage gap, record salaries and bonuses for top executives, and even skyrocketing sports salaries.

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It doesn’t take an economics professor; we’re beginning to see the results in our everyday lives. You can just look around, and see a few examples of what I mean:

Shopping: Nordstrom and Neiman-Marcus and Saks and Rodeo Drive are doing fine, thank you, for the top 2 percent. And at the other end, more and more of us are discovering the benefits of Wal-mart, bargain barns, dollar stores and even Goodwill. At the same time, middle-class good ol' American institutions like Sears, K-Mart (nee Kresgees) and JC Penneys are hanging by a financial thread.

Airlines: Here's one most of us are familiar with. On the one hand the airlines advertise high-end perks, accommodations, and special service for top-tier users (shall we just call them the 3 percent?), while the rest of us are crammed into what feel like cattle cars with no leg room. We're discouraged from or charged for having carry-ons, and of course can't recline a seat. There is no middle anymore.

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Homes: There are no middle-priced, readily affordable homes being built anymore, like the ones in Belmont or the Huber homes that once defined Dayton's growing suburbs. But it seems they can't build the $300,000-plus homes fast enough for the demand by the upper part of the former middle-income class — let's say the 4 percent. The lower part of the former middle-income class has to make do with rentals or existing older homes, and then face problems with obtaining even modest loans.

Restaurants: The high end seems to be doing fine, the expensive ones which cater to the 5 percent (or business expense accounts). Many fine "middle" restaurants are arriving, but they seem to be on the high end for the average couple or family, and they may be overbuilding. They have waiting lines on weekends, but splurging and eating out once a week won't sustain them. It's difficult to get out of one of those places for less than $50 for a couple or $80 for a family. On the other end of the spectrum, the fast-food burger chains will be around forever, although even there it's hard to find the budget or dollar-menu among the higher priced mega-burger combos. Thank goodness for pizza.

There are more examples; any suggestions? We’re not at Russia’s post-USSR plutocracy yet, but one wonders if our middle-income class may be in danger. Now that we’re beginning a national debate about “tax reform,” it will be even more critical to watch the details, and we definitely shouldn’t admire Russia’s system.

Historically, economic recoveries and tax relief benefit those who lobby best. And who can afford lobbyists and fund political campaigns? You guessed it: the top 6 percent.

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David Shumway is one of our regular community contributors.

Politicians of both parties promise to “help the middle class,” but we also know the mantra that “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer” will probably continue.

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