Most of the focus on the new Pew report, “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class,” has been around middle-class household income. What Pew calls “middle tier median income” dropped from $72,956 in 2000 to $69,497 in 2010, based on 2011 dollars. The standards of living for people in this group have been beaten down enough that they will not recover in the foreseeable future.
Less prominent in the report and conversations about Pew’s research is the section “Winners and Losers, 2001 to 2011: Changes in Income Status for Assorted Adult Groups.” The group that lost the most ground was the one that encompasses people who have only a high school degree. Also among the bottom three groups of losers was those with “some college.” Rounding out the tier was people who never married. It is difficult to explain the financial hardships of this final group.
It is not terribly hard to speculate on what happened to the undereducated, and easy to say that their situations will not get better. Employers tend to have their pick of workers when economic times are rough. Earlier in the decade analyzed by the Pew data, this was not as true because GDP growth was healthy. That does not mean that higher paying jobs went to people with poor educations. Those who have not remained in school for long rarely do well in any economic environment.
The problem with the undereducated comes around to what the nature of an economic recovery will have to be. The Pew study points out that people who are over 65, are white, are married and have college educations fared relatively well during the past decade. These groups traditionally do well, regardless of GDP expansion, at least compared to all others. A better economy will better their prospects again.
There are no ready plans in the U.S. to improve the educations of those least likely to remain in school through college. There may never be. The economy needs a stream of people to be laborers and to work in low-level service jobs. Without some shift in how these Americans earn money and how they can earn more, they will be even worse off when Pew looks back a decade in its 2022 report.
Douglas A. McIntyre