I've been assured my in-laws don't read my column. However, because of their mix of shame, guilt and blame, I'll be vague on some details. They've fallen on hard times. No one wants to talk about it, let alone have it written about and syndicated.
But I think their story is illustrative.
My in-laws live in a generic suburb of modest mid-century tract homes in the middle of strip-mall sprawl. They have a well-attended lawn, two mid-range cars in the driveway, a loyal lab mix sleeping on the porch. They both worked in middle management in not-important-enough-to-name small businesses tangentially related to serving the housing industry for more than 20 years each. They paid off their mortgage. Their son, my husband, was the first in their family to attend college. During the housing boom they looked at the massive amount their small three-bedroom home was worth and opted not to partake in the equity, but knew it meant they were secure. The future was bright.
In short: They were living every part of the real American Dream. Not the grandiose one where we're all millionaires or soon-to-be millionaires. The one where we all have a job, a home and our kids are better off than we were. My in-laws had that.
The middle-class mantra since the Great Depression has been if you do the right thing, you'll be OK. Work, save, pay bills and pay your taxes. You know - be responsible. Those in the middle class believe everyone gets the opportunity for success, and failure is something you choose. So when bad times fall on those in the middle class, it's assumed it's because of some moral shortcoming. Drugs, gambling, divorce - something they did. Something they therefore could have avoided doing. These tales become suburban parables, gossip with a moral to the story. "So and so had that shopping addiction and now the house is for sale. Tsk. Tsk."
You're familiar with the next part of this story. Giant, faceless, soulless corporations gambled, colluded, lied, stole and were otherwise reckless in their deregulated pursuit of profits. These conglomerates were so giant, in fact, they had to be immediately saved by the same government. Too big to fail: the premise of every monster movie ever made.
My in-laws had no part in any of that. They just faithfully and unwittingly paid their taxes to prop up companies like Bank of America. They also pay for government that doesn't represent them; it instead represents Citigroup.
My mother-in-law was the first to be laid off. A few months later, her husband's company also downsized. They're 55 and 56 years old. Too young to retire, too old to be hired. Their health insurance is $1,000 a month each. That's $24,000 a year just for health insurance (for perspective: the annual salary for a minimum wage worker is $15,000). They're still a decade away from Medicare.
Their unemployment insurance has, of course, run out. They've yet to find work. Their house is worth half of what it was during the boom. They don't travel. They don't buy anything. They don't have much of a choice. Their savings is going quickly.
What happened to them is government and corporations got together to make life fuller (richer) for corporations. Wealth was redistributed away from the middle and went to the very, very top. The term a "government by the people" was said with a wink as vampiric corporations were thought of as ... people. "People" that do business in the United States but magically exist in the Caymans. Yes, coming from a victim, this sounds like a conspiracy theory. "They" raided my in-laws' retirement.
But really: Their golden years did go to Goldman Sachs.
As Congress shortsightedly wants to outlaw abortion, bicker about debt ceilings, vilify those on food stamps and take more recesses than the average kindergartener - the middle class is an abstraction. The middle class is just a thing they mention to try to mask being an elitist, beltway insider, corporate toady.
But the real middle class - the actual human beings - are not getting help from the politicians they voted for. Instead, the politicians they voted for are helping the companies that the middle class, in turn, is forced to subsidize.
It's not a theory, it's a conspiracy fact.