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Policy Shop / Demos Blog

Running in Place: Where The Middle Class and The Poor Meet

Public opinion about the causes and consequences of poverty has historically communicated negative stereotypes of the poor and a distrust of government welfare programs. But as persistent financial insecurity has spread more widely across the income spectrum, these attitudes are starting to shift. In 2008 Gallup found that 69 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the nation’s efforts to deal with poverty. In June 2013 that percentage rose to 80 percent.

At first read this might suggest a growing frustration with governmental antipoverty programs as inefficient and with the poor as too reliant on entitlements. But other data suggests an acknowledgment of the hard work and obstacles faced by those living in poverty. In 1994 less than half (49 percent) of Americans believed that most of the poor worked, as opposed to relying on government handouts. Well prior to the current recession that figure had grown to 60 percent.

The majority of Americans now believe that the middle class has less opportunity to get ahead than in previous decades (52 percent), less job and financial security (65 percent), and less expendable income after covering basic expenses (60 percent).

The majority (54 percent) also now name financial insecurity as the top concern of the middle class. As the majority of Americans experience these concerns it has become easier for a larger group to identify and empathize with the ongoing financial instability that is a daily fact of life for those in poverty.

Education is a strong case in point. As discussed in a new Demos report called Running in Place: Where the Poor and the Middle Class Meet,  today both low- and middle-income families face economic hardship in providing their children with quality childcare and a solid educational foundation from preschool through college. The consequences of this are apparent in that the children of the rich are now pulling away from the children of the middle class in educational achievement and access.

This is not news, unfortunately. Stanford professor Sean Reardon has written passionately and convincingly about this, making the point that a gap between rich and middle class students exists in pretty much every educational indicator that matters: grades, standardized test scores, high school and college graduation rates, and even in participation in extracurricular activities.

Reardon suggests that rising income inequality explains only half of the growing gap.

It’s not just that the rich have more money than they used to, it’s that they are using it differently….High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

This may sound anecdotal and perhaps obvious. But here are some telling stats that Reardon points out:

  • Between 1972 and 2006 high-income families increased the amount they spent on enrichment activities for their children by 150 percent. Lower-income families increased their spending as well, but only 57 percent over the same time period
  • The amount of time parents spend with their children has grown twice as fast since 1975 among college-educated parents as it has among less-educated parents.

In the race for resources and the struggle to secure economic opportunity, having the time and money to enrich your children is a huge deal. We have been talking about this in the context of wealthy versus poor for a long time. But we have been relatively silent as to what it means when working and middle class families cannot keep up.

Perhaps the growing awareness on the part of middle class families that they are the same side of the educational gap as poor ones will change that.

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Jennifer Wheary

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos and author of the group's October 2013 report, Running in Place: Where the Poor and the Middle Class Meet.

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