Editor's Note: All this week in our special series "Broken Government," CNN is taking a hard look at our nation's government; the frustrating problems and the potential solutions. Today, our Carol Costello reports on the growing struggles of the American middle class. Tomorrow on American Morning, we look at why banks still aren't loaning and what the answer is for small businesses.
By Bob Ruff and Carol Costello
What does it take to be part of the American middle class?
Here’s the tried and true way: Get an education, work hard, get a good paying job with benefits, raise a family, buy a house and a car or two and take a vacation once a year.
Put it all together and you’re describing not just the dream, but the fulfillment of that dream by tens of millions of Americans during the last century. But that was then, before the hard economic times following 9/11, and this is now.
Meet the Bindners of Alexandria, Virginia.
“I think the middle class,” says Moira Bindner, “is trying to get a handle on where their feet are because it feels like the rug has been totally pulled out, and it’s really challenging on a day to day basis to accomplish everything with the paycheck coming in the door.”
For example: “You don’t go to the dentist, you don’t get your car repaired until it’s desperate...the retirement plan went out the window and our credit card debt went up,” says Moira.
Moira works for a company that manages professional speakers. Her husband, Michael, works in education. Both have lost their jobs, and while they are now back to work, their combined salary is thousands less than it used to be.
Commerce Department statistics show that the Bindners are hardly alone. From 1990 to 2008, middle class incomes rose just 20%, and most of that happened in the 1990s. Since then, income has stagnated for people in the middle, yet home prices shot up 56%, college costs 60%. As for health care, no one would be surprised to learn that it’s up 155%.
According to some, government has made the problem worse.
Jacob Hacker is a Yale University political scientist who just published “The Great Risk Shift,” a book about the decline of the American dream. He says, “there’s a lot of pressure for politicians to appease those who have the most money in the system.” He’s talking about big political donors and lobbyists who represent the rich and powerful.
Washington gets that there’s a big problem with the middle class in America, says Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. But “none of them are willing to do the unpopular things, which means they’re not willing to raise taxes, and they’re not willing to cut spending. So we’re at an impasse now and it’s getting worse day by day.”
“The only thing that has come out of Washington is more and more gridlock and more and more game playing,” says Moira.
So, we asked her if government is broken?
“I would say, not broken, but bruised...I think it’s bruised.”