The Shrinking Middle Class: The Current State of Affairs

The Shrinking Middle Class: The Current State of Affairs

The pair pose for a portrait in Lois’ home, December 11, 2018. Kendrick Brinson for Fortune.

Stories from people chasing the American Dream.
By Fortune Staff

Work-Life Balance? Not a Chance. Caregiver Marylou Angel’s top customer is her 92-year-old mother, Lois.

Most Americans consider themselves part of the “middle class,” but no one can agree on what term that means. The problem? If sizing up the middle class is difficult enough, it’s even harder to say that circumstances within this group have changed. But they certainly have. As you’ll discover in this Fortune special report, life has gotten more difficult for the millions of people within the middle class. We dispatched more than 50 people to discover why the American dream has been fading for far too many.

In this section, we examine the current state of affairs by speaking with the people affected most by it. What we learned: Chasing the American dream was once exhilarating; now it’s exhausting.

I had my own business: Mary Lou’s Hair Salon. With three employees! It was a dream. It was hard, but I’d say, Okay, so it’s a hard day or a hard week—but one day I’ll retire and take that cruise. I had to retire early, at 62, to take care of my mother. Those first three years were hard because I waited until 65 to collect Social Security. And, really, it just stayed hard. No cruise now. No cruise ever. Not anymore. Best we did awhile back was a day trip to Morro Bay. It was pretty, but it wasn’t much time.

My mother is 92 years old. She worked in the fields, picking tomatoes or cotton. She’s illiterate. She never thought she’d make it much past 60 or 70. Now here she is, 92, in denial about needing a hearing aid. She’s diabetic and about $300 of her monthly $928 goes to medicine. I get $11 an hour through Medicaid for being her caregiver—about $400 every two weeks, after taxes and dues—but we’re trying to get it to $15.

Every other day, I come over to her apartment. We each live alone, but we get to be alone together, if that makes sense. I’ll cook for her and feed her and bathe her. Maybe we watch an old John Wayne cowboy movie together. A few months ago, she had a minor stroke. I thought she might die. I realized how much my life has jumped ahead. I’m 72 but I feel kinda 90 now.

I’m very thankful for the 99¢ store. And I go to a church where God welcomes you as you are. I don’t buy new clothes anymore. Best I’ll do, splurge-wise, is buy makeup for my mom. Pink lipstick. I don’t know what kind of pink—there are lots of fancy pinks at real stores, but when it’s from the 99¢ store, it’s just plain old pink. We’ll put that on and feel 50 again. That’s enough. Not that we have choice about it, but it’s enough in the heart. It’s not about what you have. It’s what you bring.

—As told to Richard Morgan

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December 20th, 2018