Now Is The Time To Help The Middle Class

In 1931, author James Truslow Adams conceived the phrase the “American Dream,” the idea that America is the land of upward mobility for the masses, instead of just the privileged few. As America’s housing markets boomed after World War II, the masses attained the American Dream, giving rise to a thriving middle class that remains the backbone of our economy.

In recent years, however, the American Dream has fallen out of reach for many. We’ve seen enough proof that shows the middle class is struggling to make ends meet, and its ranks plummeted from 61 percent of the U.S. population in 1971 to just 52 percent of the population in 2016, while wages are failing to keep up with a higher cost of living.

What’s interesting and more concerning is that new research shows the middle class itself doesn’t see its prospects as being so dim. A recent CUNA Mutual Group survey of the middle class found that, when asked to grade their ability to achieve the American Dream, the middle class gave themselves a B-minus, which suggests somewhat of a positive outlook.

The same study found that 62 percent of the middle class is confident about its finances, and close to half of respondents (46 percent) don’t anticipate missing any loan payments in the next two years.

Where this tepid optimism gets into highly problematic territory is that the study also found that members of the middle class haven’t built savings for the proverbial rainy day. The majority of the middle class says it has three months, at most, of emergency savings — leaving it unable to weather events such as the loss of a job or a severe medical issue.

This is important because the economy fluctuates, and while unemployment is currently under 4 percent after a record run of market milestones, when a downturn does inevitably arrive — and it will — the middle class will be severely exposed.

Along similar lines, even in today’s robust economy, the middle class is pessimistic about their prospects for retirement: the vast majority — 72 percent — don’t think they’ll be able to retire with confidence in their lifetime, and view more immediately achievable goals, such as car purchases and international travel, as more realistic uses of their money. Such uses of limited money hardly makes the situation better.

While the fact that the middle class finds itself in precarious shape no longer makes for front-page news, the finding that the middle class is living just well enough for now to feel optimistic is noteworthy and should make us think.

Sure, when times are good, modest day-to-day purchases don’t create extreme levels of anxiety, but the faulty assumption behind this positivity seems to be that times will remain good. This reveals a fundamental lack of preparedness and an absence of urgency that could cripple the middle class should another financial crisis hit.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between awareness and preparedness, and if there’s one thing members of the middle class should do heading into 2019, it’s financial planning. And if there’s one thing everyone should talk about more, it’s promoting financial planning. The aforementioned positive attitudes about the American Dream by the middle class show the discussion isn’t where it needs to be.

It’s critical we protect the progress we’ve made in the last decade since the Great Recession, and now is the time to put together a plan for members of the middle class.

Robert N. Trunzo is president and chief executive officer of CUNA Mutual Group, which provides insurance and other financial services for credit unions, their employees, their members and others.

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