Most people in America identify as middle class, even on the lower and higher ends of the income spectrum. One survey found that a third of individuals who have a family income of less than $30,000 a year think of themselves as middle class. On the other end of the spectrum, 51% of those with family incomes above $100,000 a year also identify as middle class. While “middle class” can be identified through income, credentials, or culture, it is undeniable that in the United States, people want to be associated with the middle class.
In part, this has to do with stigma associated with being poor—the misrepresentation that is widely accepted in the U.S., that “if you work hard, you’ll make it.” But the middle class also conjures up images of stability, leisure time, and economic security—something that most everybody wants. Despite many identifying with the middle class, the fact of the matter is that the middle class is shrinking. Pew identifies “middle-income” as those who make two-thirds to double the national median, which was about $42,000 to $126,000 in 2014 for a household of three. Using this definition, in 1971 the middle class made up 61% of the adult population. By 2015, this had decreased to 50%.
Part of the reason for this “middle-class squeeze” is because costs have increased—the cost of child care, health care, housing, and higher education are putting more strain on budgets than they used to. Another reason is the growth of low-paying jobs and the deterioration of wages and workforce protections.
And even for those who remain in this shrinking middle class, life is harder and more uncertain than it once was. Many middle-class families are headed by single men or women. And even among middle-class families made up of two partnered adults, both of them are likely to work. Many families are also finding they have to work more hours in order to make ends meet. The result is that families find it much harder to balance work with the demands of child care or elder care (or both) as well as preparing meals and household cleaning. Jobs are also less stable—the days when someone worked their whole life for one employer or even in one career are long gone. For all these reasons middle-class family life is more stressful and insecure than it was in the past.
Young people are having a harder time entering the middle class, even if their parents were a part of it. More young adults than ever before (24.4%) were living with their parents during the height of the pandemic—a percentage that was even higher for young adults of color. Homeownership rates are at a historic low for young adults. Parents of young children are squeezed by the cost of child care, and then when their children get older, by the cost of college. Pennsylvanians of all ages feel the rising cost of health care and prescription drugs. As our population ages, costs related to aging, including home health care costs, remain a burden to many families.
The Build Back Better legislation currently being debated in Congress would help lower costs, cut taxes, and improve jobs—all of which hinder the middle class from becoming more stable and the working poor from entering the middle class. Passing Build Back Better would improve the lives of Pennsylvanians.
Let me explain how. Build Back Better would make the following changes:
Lower child care costs: While there is often a lot of discussion among families and in the media about the cost of sending your child to college, there is less conversation about the cost of child care. Yet in Pennsylvania, infant care costs just $2,692 less per year than in-state tuition at a public four-year college—that is 82% of college costs. Infant care costs more than the average cost of housing for a year—8.1% more ($11,842 compared to $10,879 for housing). These costs make quality care difficult for middle-class families to afford and nearly impossible for low-wage workers. The Build Back Better plan would ensure no middle-class family pays more than 7% of their income in high-quality child care and that the working families most in need wouldn’t pay anything. This would be a tremendous help to most families with young children. Parents can redirect money they would normally pay for child care towards other necessities.
Create universal pre-k: The BBB plan would make universal pre-K a reality for all 3- and 4-year-old kids.
Establish a paid family and medical leave program: Another thing the BBB plan would do is establish 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Nearly every other industrialized nation has this kind of policy to support workers by allowing them to take time off when a new baby or child is brought into their family or when workers need to take care of a sick relative or is facing illness themselves.
Lowering higher education costs: Pennsylvania has some of the highest public college costs in the United States. The BBB plan would do several things. It would provide two years of free community college to high school graduates. It would increase the maximum Pell Grant award by nearly $1,500. The legislation would also and invest billions of dollars in subsidized tuition for low- and middle-income students at historically Black colleges, Tribal colleges, and minority-serving institutions. Decreasing the cost of college would lessen the financial hit many middle-class families take to send their kids to college. It would also increase college attendance as more students would be able to access higher education, which, ideally, would in turn bring more young people into the middle class.
Lowering health care and prescription drug costs: Did you know that people in the United States pay two or three times more for their prescription drugs than people in other wealthy countries? The BBB would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, which would result in lower drug prices and less power for pharmaceutical companies. The BBB would also reduce health care premiums resulting in savings of an average of $50 a month per person while also adding dental, vision, and hearing care to Medicare benefits. As the country ages, the BBB legislation would also expand quality home care services and improve home care jobs and pay. This would reduce the burden of elder care on middle-class families.
Creating more affordable housing: As housing costs soar in many parts of the country, increasing numbers of families are spending more than half of their income on housing, even though to be considered affordable, people shouldn’t spend more than 30% of their income on housing. The BBB plan would expand affordable housing through tax credits and government financing.
Extending the increased Child Tax Credit: The American Rescue Plan increased the Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,000 per child for children aged six and up. For children under six, the tax credit was increased to $3,600 per child. This last year, this expanded CTC has put more money in the hands of middle-class and working-class families. The BBB plan would extend these expansions and make them permanent—without such an extension, the CTC increases will expire at the end of this calendar year.
Funding for workforce training and creating clean energy jobs: The BBB plan invests in high-quality career training and apprenticeship programs, which can prepare more workers for high-quality, good-paying jobs. As our economy continues to change rapidly and as we address the climate crisis by reducing our reliance on fossil fuel, middle-class workers may need to change jobs. Workforce training programs would help them move from one good job to another. And the well-designed clean energy programs created by BBB would create tens of thousands of new, good-paying, unionized jobs.
The Build Back Better plan is a no-brainer and should be supported by all Pennsylvanians—middle class and seeking-to-be middle class alike. It would help the people in our state achieve more stability, more time with their loved ones, and more economic security.