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Middle class a difficult American dream, Commerce Dept. study finds

January 25, 2010 |  3:17 pm

Reaching and staying in the middle class is an attainable goal – but one that’s getting harder to hit, according to a new report from the Commerce Department.

Compared with two decades ago, families on the middle rung are dealing with ever-increasing costs, said researchers from the Economics and Statistics Administration who compiled data for Vice President Joe Biden’s Middle Class Task Force.

“The American dream is attainable, but if we don’t attack the big problems today, whether it’s health insurance, education, childcare or housing, it will be harder for more and more American families to reach the middle class,” said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in a statement.

After rising in the 1990s, family incomes fell the next decade as expenses related to housing, education and healthcare rose much faster than the overall inflation rate. Housing prices jumped 56% since 1990, even accounting for inflation, while tuition for a four-year public college soared 60% and healthcare insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs skyrocketed 155%.

The report noted that middle-class families are defined only in part by their incomes. Instead, money is a single element in a mix that includes values, expectations and aspirations.

Most families in the category seek economic stability, including a home, a car for each adult, medical care, college savings funds for their children and retirement and the occasional family vacation.

-- Tiffany Hsu

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