January 26, 2021

Dee describes herself as frustrated and so very, very angry. “Having everything ‘right’ and still living with precarity, literally living paycheck to paycheck, is deeply upsetting,” she says. Which is why her extra income is going toward her kids’ college savings: to prevent them starting their lives already behind, the way she feels she did. The hole Dee dug in search of middle-class stability for her family is so deep that she’d realistically need to double, even triple her income to pull herself out and have enough to stabilize her parents as well.

She doesn’t have a ton of hope that will happen. “I live in America,” she says. “There is no support for middle-class families, and there is no targeted support for those who have suffered from systemic racism. It’s getting harder and harder to maintain a middle-class life.”

Dee’s story is illustrative of just how different the hollowing of the middle class can feel, depending on your race and family history. Unlike many white middle-class Americans who find themselves bewildered by the prospect of going financially backward from their parents, Dee watched as her family’s best-laid plans for a steady, middle-class future were foiled, again and again, by economic catastrophes in which losses were disproportionately absorbed by Black Americans.

As economists William Darity Jr., Fenaba Addo, and Imari Smith recently explained, “for Black Americans, the issue may not be restoring its middle class, but constructing a robust middle class in the first place.” For families like Dee’s, the stability of the middle class has always been a mirage. And you can’t hollow out what’s never actually existed.

A foundational myth of the American dream is the potential of the individual, wholly unbound by context. Parental income level, race, education, access to resources as a child, health, location — positive or negative — all become incidental. The idea is that in America, land of opportunity, you excel on your own merits.

This is a lie, of course. When we talk about class status in America, we still largely focus on current status instead of intergenerational familial legacy; on income, rather than our access to wealth, which “serves as a reservoir that a family can tap into when its income flow is disrupted,” according to economist Ngina Chiteji. Wealth can absorb the blow of a recession, a lost job, or a medical catastrophe. Family wealth makes it easier for future generations to buy homes, and makes it less likely that they’ll accumulate debt. If Dee’s grandparents and parents hadn’t been so thoroughly destabilized by various recessions, her student debt load might be significantly lower or nonexistent today.