Middle Class in America

September 30, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

HOBOKEN, NEW JERSEY — Hoboken, New Jersey. -- This was America's deal with me:

If I kept my nose clean and paid attention in school, I could go to college, even if I had to work in the summers and part-time during the school year to pay for it. Then, if I worked for a few years, I could afford to buy a house and one day make enough money to make sure my own kids got through college.

And that's what happened, for which I am very grateful. That deal, and the fact that if one screwed it up the first time there was almost always a second and third chance in the land of the free, are a good part of the reason I have always thought this a great country. What more could you ask?

The tuition at Stevens Institute of Technology in this little city across the Hudson River from Manhattan was $800 a year when I entered in the late 1950s. I could make that, and did, working as a lifeguard at the Jersey shore and teaching swimming at camps, and at Goodman's Department Store and Ferguson's Iron Works in Jersey City.

Five years after I graduated (and changed careers from engineering to newspapering), with a wife and two children, I was able to buy a house in Denville, New Jersey, 30 miles west of New York. We felt rich that year, 1965, when I went from the Newark Evening News to the New York Herald Tribune, and I got the Newspaper Guild minimum for my experience, $163.60 a week. With a little help from our parents, who gave us a couple of thousand dollars though they did not own their own homes, we bought a house on Lakewood Drive for $26,500. The down payment was $6,000.

Now the tuition at Stevens is $16,900 a year. Room and board is another $5,880. A kid can't make that much today. The house on Lakewood Drive is probably worth $250,000. Only the oldest of our four grown children, a successful chef, could have a realistic hope of buying it.

That's my little American story. That was what it was like growing up ''middle-class'' in my generation. It was a time almost all of us, including poor and rich people, considered ourselves middle-class. It was practically a euphemism for ''American.'' A few years after becoming a homeowner, I told the editor of the New York Times, who happened to be married to the daughter of President Truman, that I thought middle-class New Yorkers hated Mayor John Lindsay. ''I don't hate him,'' said the editor, ''and I'm middle class.''

I prattle on about this to draw attention to a speech given Tuesday in Dallas by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich -- a speech I think will be as important as any that has come out of the presidency of Bill Clinton. Speaking to the National Alliance of Business, Mr. Reich raised the question of what it profits a man and his family if the nation becomes more ''competitive'' and ''productive,'' but in the process reduces the standard of living of most of its citizens. What is the point of hard work and hard thinking and smart business if it makes people poorer rather than richer?

''When nations are wise and lucky -- as America has been for much of its history -- an implicit social compact knits together business success, rising living standards and pro-business politics,'' said Mr. Reich. ''But the erosion of the old middle class poses a threat to the bargain that has paid off so well for so many American citizens and American companies. . . . As most Americans work harder for less, and the American dream recedes, the much-vaunted competitiveness of the American economy seems like a cruel hoax.''

The secretary touched on the current economic and journalistic fashions of reporting corporate job losses as good news, and new jobs or higher wages as bad news, because of their effects on ''productivity'' and the possibility that higher middle-class earnings could lead to inflation. He also said that the prosperity of those middle-class folk is important for the obvious reason that ''they form the majority of most companies' customers.''

I would add that a prosperous middle class is the heart of American democracy. If the system does not work for most of the people most of the time, there will be no wise and lucky America, only selfishness and the kinds of conflict and chaos we thought we had left behind us in the 19th century, in the 1930s, in the 1960s.

Other than constant training and retraining to upgrade worker skills, the secretary offered no real answers to the problem of ''advanced'' societies running out of work for ''ordinary'' people -- though he does plan to give two more speeches on the subject. But what he said is important because the time has come to talk more about these things, about whether ordinary people can live on a diet of high-productivity statistics.

In fact, Reich, who is only 4 feet 10 inches tall, offered the businessmen convened in Dallas an example of the nature of some statistics, saying: ''Averages don't always reveal the most telling realities. You know, Shaquille O'Neal and I have an average height of 6 feet.''

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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