Source: Bob Davis & David Wessel. "Prosperity: The Coming 20-Year Boom and What It Means To You", 1999.
The Age of Anxiety
A disappointing quarter-century for the middle class, 1973-1996
As the Golden Age closed in 1973, Dennis and Ann Kerley looked back at their parents' lives and at their own childhood and saw that they were better off-much better off. When Jim and Ann Marie Blentlinger, a Chattanooga couple a generation younger than the Kerleys, take a similar look back today, they wonder if the middle class has nude any progress at all.
Can it really be true that couples living at the middle of the middle class today are worse off than couples in the same stage of life twenty years earlier?
The gloomy portrait of the American middle class painted in the press and in political debates often suggests the material standard of living for the middle class actually deteriorated between the 1970s and the mid 1990s, and only recently has begun to improve. An alternative portrait, popular among some economists, is that middle-class life has improved enormously, but that flawed official statistics hide the progress. A third view, best presented in books by Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson and British- born journalist Michael Elliott, is that Americans complain too much and don't realize how good they have it now.
None of those views is right; all those explanations are far too simple. The experience of the American middle class over the past twenty-five can't be summarized with a simple arrow pointing up or pointing down. A comparison of the lives of the Kerleys and the Blentlingers shows the true story is more nuanced, During the past twenty-five years, economic progress has been disappointingly slow, especially in comparison to the preceding decades. That isn't whining; it's reality and it's why middle-class families are so disheartened. The past two decades of middle-class life have been gloomier than young couples like the Blentlingers had reason to expect. Although middle-class families today have more and better cars, more sophisticated appliances, and grander vacations, and are better off materially in many other ways, these gains have come at great cost and have been accompanied by relentless uncertainty and insecurity. These pressures won't disappear, but they will ease in the next twenty years.
For typical married couples, incomes did rise between 1973 and 1996. But the Blentlingers arrived at the middle of the middle class only because both Jim and Ann Marie work. This isn't simply one more fact; it is central to what happened to the American standard of living. Although many wives worked in the 1970s, most couples got by on a single paycheck, Today, the typical couple has two paychecks-but isn't living twice as well. Neither Jim nor Ann Marie Blentlinger eams as much as Dennis Kerley earned at DuPont in the mid-1970s, after adjustment for inflation. It's only because of the second paycheck that the Blentlingers are living better than the Kerleys did twenty years earlier.
The Blentlingers also rely on easy credit far more than the Kerleys did in the early 1970s. Credit cards and home-equity lines make it easier to buy the trappings of a middle-class life, and simpler to cope with financial emergencies, but easy credit also tempts families to borrow more than they can pay back. Despite a reasonably strong economy and the lowest unemployment in decades, 1. 1 million people filed for personal bankruptcy in 1996, breaking the previous record of 900,000, set in 1992.
A close look at these two middle-class Chattanooga families-similar in many ways, but separated by twenty years---shows both the economic disappointments and the accomplishments of the Age of Anxiety The comparison shows why-despite the wonders of cheap electronics, modem medicine, and a cleaner environment-so many middle-class families feel shortchanged. During the Golden Age, families lifted their incomes by getting paid more per hour, not by working more hours. In the Age of Anxiety, families got ahead primarily by working more hours; hourly wages rose only slightly-or, for some, actually fell. The next twenty years will be better. Living standards won't improve as rapidly as they did in the Golden Age. But in the coming Age of Broadly Shared Prosperity there won't be any debate about whether life is getting better for most Americans; it will be obvious that it is.
In the 1990s, Jim and Ann Marie Blentlinger and their sons, Matthew and Luke, are living roughly at the median income for married couples, which the Census Bureau says was $49,700 in 1996. In some years, they make a little more than the median; in other years, a little less. In many respects, the Blentlingers have more and want more than the Kerleys did back in the 1970s-but they pay a price for this ambition. With both parents working, tensions over housework and childcare, the chores that stay-at-home moms handle routinely, are inevitable. The credit cards that allow middle-class families to live beyond their means cause an uneasy sense of running to stay in place. And with 50-plus channels of cable television come an ever greater awareness of what others have, and a hard-to-fulfill longing to see more, do more, and have more.
Jim Blentlinger graduated from high school in 1983, and then worked, among other jobs, as a counselor in a Christian youth organization and as a mental health aide. He moved to Chattanooga in 1990 to marry Ann Marie, then a student at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He was 25; she was 22. While working as the caretaker for a local church camp, Jim went to Chattanooga's community college and, in 1994, earned a degree in computer-aided design. Even before graduation, he got a job designing, on a computer, restaurant layouts for a restaurant-supply business. The job at the small firm was more satisfying and more flexible than Dennis Kerley's factory job ever was, and Blentlinger even got an occasional commission. There was a time clock on the wall, but no one ever punched it. If he arrived a few minutes late, no one noticed. Some of Blentlingers classmates went to work for big companies, but he chose the small firm deliberately "Guys at DuPont get laid off all the time. Their chances of not having a job next week are a lot bigger than mine," he explained early in 1995.
But just before Christmas of that year, the restaurant-supply firm closed. And unlike Dennis Kerley, who expected to be recalled by DuPont when he was laid off, Blentlinger knew his job was gone for good. He could have drawn unemployment benefits while he hunted for another job that used his computer skills, but he didn't. "I pretty much decided a long time ago there was no chance of my going on unemployment," he said. "I'd work at a McDonald's before that."
He took a $6-an-hour stock clerk's job at an office-supply firm owned by a member of his church, and a few months later began selling office supplies to small businesses on the outskirts of Chattanooga. For several months, Blentlinger, who never met anybody he didn't want to talk to, drove his 88 Jeep Cherokee, which had already traveled 103,250 miles, from one small office to another, peddling office adding-machine tape, manila folders, and used chairs. One hot, sunny Southern day, he chatted with 20 or so receptionists and secretaries in northern Georgia, but didn't close a single sale. Most of them politely told him they didn't need anything. When folks at a Georgia Farm Bureau office asked about buying a "customer parking only" sign, Blentlinger suggested where they could have one made. Afterward, he wondered aloud if he should have bought the sign himself and sold it at a markup. "Maybe I'm too idealistic to be a successful salesman," he said.For whatever reason, the job was a bust; it lasted only about nine months, He quit when the placement office at Chattanooga State Technical Community College called with a tip that an air-conditioning manufacturer was looking for someone to do computer-aided design. Despite the 45-minute commute-and the cost of fueling his thirsty Jeep-Jim leaped at the $25,000-a-year job. But he stayed less than ten months, leaving with mixed feelings when Chattanooga State passed along word of a position with a consulting engineering firm located much closer to his home. The pay was better, too. This job pays $29,000 a year, more than Jim has ever made, but not as much, adjusted for inflation, as Dennis Kerley earned in the early 1970s.
Now in his early 30s, Jim Blentlinger is fighting an on-again, off again battle to trim a bulging waistline, which reminds him he is no longer a kid. But he maintains a refreshing, youthful confidence that everything will work out. "Most people would like to make lots of money. We just like to do all right and do what we want to do. I'd rather work at one place for 20 years. But," he adds quickly, "Ann Marie tells me: If you make a little bit more, I won't have to work."
Working mothers with young children-women like Ann Marie-aren't exceptional today; they were during the Golden Age.
In Chattanooga, the 1970 census found that only 33% of women with children under six years of age were working. By 1990, in Chattanooga and elsewhere, the rate was up to 60%. Ann Marie Blentlinger, 2 1/2 years younger than her husband, is a fair-skinned woman with a round face and an inviting smile. She followed her mother and grandmother into public-school teaching, and gives her three-syllable last name as an extra-credit spelling word on tests.
The Blentlingers had hoped to time their first pregnancy so the baby would come at the end of the school year, allowing Ann Marie to spend the summer caring for him, but Matthew arrived in February 1992. Ann Marie worked until the day before she delivered, then took four weeks of paid sick leave and two weeks of unpaid leave before returning to the classroom. She would have liked more time, but the couple needed her income.
In contrast, Ann Marie's mother stayed home until her only child was a sophomore in high school. Ann Marie likes teaching most of the time, but is ambivalent about working. "I wouldn't feel productive if I didn't work," she says, "but I figure I only have one chance at raising Matthew" The Blentlingers timed the arrival of their second child better. Luke was born at the end of May 1997, allowing Ann Marie to take some of her forty-eight days of sick leave at the end of one school year and to spend the summer with her two children. But there isn't any more talk about quitting work altogether.
Ever since he was six weeks old, Matthew has been in day care or in school all day. As an infant, he went to a day care center at
Chattanooga State where his grandfather, Ann Marie's father, is a dean and math teacher. Some of Jim's jobs allowed him to drop Matthew at the day care center on his way to work. But when he had to leave home before 6:00 A.M. to put in a few hours unpacking boxes at the office-supply company to supplement his salesman's pay, Ann Marie had to drive across town to leave Matthew with her father at 7:15-because the day care center didn't open until 7:30-and then drive back across town to be at her school by 7:35.
Ann Marie fantasizes about starting her own in-home business because that would allow her to stay with Matthew and Luke-and save the $300 a month they spend on day care. She talks about selling invitations and stationery printed on her personal computer, and the couple spent their $ 1,000 tax refund in 1996 on paper and other supplies. But they both know that Ann Marie isn't likely to make anywhere near the $29,000 she is now earning as a seventh-grade reading teacher. "She has to teach until the van is paid off," Jim used to say, laughing but not joking. The van is now paid off, and Ann Marie is still teaching.
Twenty years earlier, in the early 1970s, Dennis Kerley was a burly, blond dad. Ann was a slim, serious, stay-at-home wife. Their first two boys were born close together, in 1968 and 1969; the third boy arrived in 1974. It wasn't easy for the Kerleys to make ends meet, but they thought the boys would benefit if Ann stayed home. Besides, Dennis didn't want his churchgoing wife to deal with the foul language and vulgarity" of a factory job. "I liked her being at home," he says today "Having dinner ready for him at 4:30," she interrupts.
In the early 1970s, DuPont automatically disqualified women from factory work requiring manual labor. Application forms for these jobs were marked with an asterisk and the words, "Male only" Twenty years later, Dennis Kerley's workplace partner is a young woman who hoists a heavy electric wrench to change machine parts that weigh as much as forty pounds apiece. Dennis and his partner carry the same workload and pull down the same paycheck.
Ann Kerley didn't even drive until she convinced her husband to teach her when she was 27, and giving her even this smidgen of freedom frightened him. "It was a control thing. I didn't want her independent," he says candidly Ann was hardly unusual. In 1970, one in four women-but only one in ten men-didn't drive. She now buys herself a new car every few years. With her children grown, Ann Kerley works full-time at $9 an hour in a carpet mill in nearby Dalton, Georgia, and enjoys the independence and extra money By bringing home an additional paycheck, she says, "You can have a little more, and you don't have to worry so much."
The Kerleys' life was marked by a disciplined, self-sacrificing frugality. They still have neat bundles of twenty-year-old checks that document how carefully they spent. Dennis earned $9,740 at DuPont in 1973. Thanks to overtime and a couple of substantial raises, his earnings jumped to $12,332 in 1974-roughly what the typical married man earned that first year of the Age of Anxiety. Dennis had been haunted his whole life by his father's debts and reluctance to share information about family finances with his wife. Dennis was deter-mined to be different. So Dennis and Ann took out a ruler every month and drew a grid on a steno pad. On the left, they noted all the bills they had to pay and the date each payment was due. Each week, they would make a budget. The Kerleys may have been extreme, but their determination to live within their means was more typical of the Golden Age than of more recent times.
Judging strictly by possessions and conveniences, the Kerleys certainly had far less in 1973 than the Blentlingers have today. They spent more of their family budget on food, ate out less often than the Blentlingers do, settled for a car and appliances that are primitive by today's standards, had many fewer options for how to spend their free time, and had neither the means nor the inclination to travel.
Look inside the two-bedroom yellow bungalow that the Kerleys rented in a Chattanooga suburb in the early 1970s: The fifty-year-old house had a washer, a double-door refrigerator, a 2 1 -inch color TV, and a window air-conditioner, but no vacuum cleaner and no dryer. "I hung clothes out on the line," Ann recalls. "In the winter I'd go to the Washeteria to dry them."
The Blentlingers' house in the 1990s has all that the Kerleys' had and then some: a washer plus a dryer, a dishwasher, even a bread-baking machine. Fruits of the electronics revolution are everywhere; everything electronic is far cheaper and far better than anything the Kerleys had. They have a 21 -inch TV in the living room and a 13-inch set in the kitchen, both with cable television. Ann Marie Blentlinger does things Ann Kerley couldn't imagine in the early 1970s: She tapes "As the World Turns" on a VCR for later viewing, and turns out custom birthday cards on her color printer. In the kitchen, the Blentlingers have a cordless telephone and a microwave oven. They listen to singer Amy Grant on a compact-disk player, which offers crisper sound than the cabinet-size record and tape player on which the Kerleys listened to the Oak Ridge Boys. Adjusted for inflation, the $169 CD player cost 40% of what the Kerleys' stereo did twenty years before.
To feed the family, the Blentlingers spend less of their paychecks on food than couples like the Kerleys did twenty years earlier--even including the cost of eating out. The Kerleys figure they spent $35- roughly one day's pay- each week on groceries in the early 1970s, when they had two young boys. "Most nights we'd have meat," Ann recalls. "He thinks he's starving if he doesn't have meat." Only rarely did they treat the family to dinner at a hamburger joint or take the kids for soft ice cream at Dairy Gold.
The Blentlingers spend just two-thirds what the Kerleys spent on groceries, adjusted for inflation. One reason, of course, is that one of the younger couple's children is still an infant. The typical middle-class family today has fewer members, so the same income, adjusted for higher prices, goes a little further. But having one, or even two, fewer children doesn't compensate for the excruciatingly slow growth of income. After adjusting family income figures to reflect shrinking family size, economists Sheldon Danziger and Peter Gottschalk concluded that median income per family member still was only 8% greater in 1993 than it was twenty years before.
Eating out more often is a distinguishing feature of today's middle class lifestyle, one of those improvements in American living standards that often escapes public discussion. Perhaps twice a month, the Blentlingers dine at a family restaurant such as Bennigan's, a national chain with several Chattanooga outlets, which charges $5.59 for a hamburger and fries. Once a luxury for the middle class, eating out is now so common that the number of restaurants in the Chattanooga area grew by more than 40% between 1972 and 1992.
Measured against family incomes, however, some important emblems of middle-class life, such as houses and cars, have grown more expensive over the past twenty years. In 1976, after years of putting every raise Dennis got into a savings account, the Kerleys; managed to accumulate $1,500 in the credit union. With that, and another $ 1,000 borrowed from the same credit union, they made a down payment on a $26,000, three-bedroom, split-level house a few miles north of Chattanooga. The Kerleys; avoided the city itself because they wanted no part of the court-ordered school busing aimed at integrating Chattanooga's public schools. The house cost roughly twice Denniss annual earnings at the time, but he thought it was worth it. The one-year-old home had a roomy backyard, central air-conditioning, wall-to-wall carpeting, a big basement, and the first dishwasher the Kerleys ever owned. "It was nicer than anything my parents ever had," Dennis says.
For a young family at the middle of the middle class, it was easier to buy a house in the early 1970s than in the early 1990s. In 1973, the median house in the United States sold for about 2.2 times the income of the typical married couple-again, most families earned only one paycheck. Twenty years later, the typical house cost close to 2.5 times the median married couple's income, even though the modem couple was more likely to have two paychecks. Largely because of that, home ownership among families headed by people in their 30s and early 40s has fallen.
The Blentlingers have achieved the embodiment of the American dream-home ownership; many of their peers haven't been so fortunate. After living rent-free when Jim worked as caretaker for a church camp, and then renting for about a year, they bought a house, in June 1995, on a quiet, shady block in the blue-collar suburb called Red Bank. They paid $70,455-less than twice their combined annual income. Like an increasing number of young couples, the Blentlingers couldn't have afforded the house without help from Ann Marie's parents, who gave them $4,000 toward the down payment. Data compiled by the Chicago Title & Trust Company show that such gifts account for a growing fraction of the down payments of first-time home buyers. in the late 1970s, 8.5% of the average down payment was a gift, usually from a relative; in the early 1990s, it was 13. 1 %.
The Blentlingers' split-level house has three bedrooms and a darkpaneled family room off the kitchen. It's roughly equivalent to the house in which Ann Marie Blentlinger grew up, the house in which her parents still live-one of the reasons that the Blentlingers suspect the middle class isn't improving its lot as rapidly as earlier generations did. The house, however, came with central air-conditioning and an alarm system, a feature that didn't even make the Kerleys' wish list in the 1970s. And, at last, the Blentlingers have a two-car garage, something they've wanted ever since they were married.
Cars cut more deeply into middle-class budgets today than they did during the Golden Age. In late 1973, as gasoline prices shot up, Dennis Kerley traded his roomy Ford Galaxie for a 1973 Datsun station wagon barely big enough for the family of five. It cost $3,195-three months' pay-and was the family's only car. They paid it off in just three years. But car owners today get more for their money; the cars are safer and more comfortable, and they perform better. The Blentlingers have two cars: the used jeep that Jim bought from his fastidious boss at the restaurant-supply house, and a 1993 Dodge Caravan they bought new. The minivan boasts a tape player, an airbag on the driver's side, and electric locks, features that didn't exist or were only for the wealthy twenty years earlier. But Jim and Ann Marie paid for the extras: The minivan cost $18,000, or four-and-a-half months of the Blentlingers' combined income. Because it cost so much, they paid it off over five years.Higher car prices are one reason that middle-class families today rely so much more on credit than did families several decades ago-to better and worse effect. Easy credit is a key both to middle-class life and to middle-class anxiety For big purchases in the 1970s, the Kerleys kept an account at a local store, and paid off each new appliance before buying another. They used credit cards only for children's clothes, and then only when Ann Kerley didn't sew them herself on a sewing machine her mother-in-law had given her. Their canceled checks show only a handful of MasterCharge payments, and those were only about $40 each.
For many, that kind of frugality started to crumble in September 1958. Bank of America mailed 60,000 unsolicited cards to the citizens of Fresno, California, a watershed in American economic life. The cards took years to catch on, but when they did, they became indispensable to middle-class families. In 1970, only 15% of American families carried general-purpose credit cards-Visa, MasterCard, or other cards that could be used almost anywhere. By 1986, more than 55% of families did. And by 1992, 63% did. "Consumers seem to have taken the television commercial to heart: Very few ever leave home without one," says Lewis Mandell, historian of the credit card. Credit card solicitations now arrive in the mail-or in dinnertime phone calls-with the regularity of sunset. "We get a credit card application every day, or at least once or twice a week," Jim Blentlinger says.
The Blentlingers, although not overburdened with debt, ran up a $2,000 Visa tab over a three-year period before they swore off plastic. it had become too easy to live beyond their means. Ann Marie arranged for the teachers' credit union to automatically deduct from her salary: $80 each month to pay off Visa, $70 for a loan they took to buy a personal computer, and another $367 for the van.
Couples like the Blentlingers do shoulder a heavier tax burden than similar couples in the 1970s did, but the difference isn't nearly as great as is popularly believed. The problem for the middle class is not that taxes are increasing, but that income before taxes is increasing very slowly In 1973, according to U.S. Treasury Department estimates, the typical family of four had income of $13,710 and paid about $1,300 in federal income taxes and $630 in Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. These federal taxes ate up 14.2% of their income. As payroll taxes rose to finance an increasingly expensive Medicare health-insurance program for the elderly and to bolster Social Security, the federal tax bite for these families climbed to 18.4% in 1981. Then things began to improve. Tax reform in the mid- 1980s cut income tax rates for the middle class. By 1995, the typical family of four paid 16.8% of its $47,700 income in taxes-about $4,375 in income taxes and $3,650 in payroll taxes.
A more comprehensive Congressional Budget Office analysis covered federal taxes on liquor, cigarettes, gasoline, and airline tickets, as well as taxes paid by businesses, income taxes, and payroll taxes. It found that the overall tax bite on families in the middle of the middle class didn't budge between 1977 and 1994. Federal taxes claimed 19.5% of their incomes in 1977 and 19.4% in 1994. For middle-class families with children, the 1997 tax cuts shaved their tax bills a bit from those levels.
Middle-class satisfaction reflects not only what people have, but what they want. The Blentlingers of the 1990s have a lot in common with the Kerleys of the 1970s: a hardworking seriousness, a strong desire to see their children succeed, and a deep commitment to their church. Recreation for the Kerleys in the 1970s was mostly free: softball games at Dennis's parents' house, and church gatherings where the men would grill hot dogs and the women would bring covered dishes of food. The Kerleys rarely went out without their children. But neither do the Blentlingers. With both of them working and dividing the household chores, it isn't only the money; it's the energy, They rent videos from time to time, but Ann Marie confesses that she usually falls asleep before they're over.
But the Blentlingers have more choices now and want more in the future: travel; private school for their sons. They have a more expansive sense of the world and a clearer sense of what they would do with more money They are less satisfied with what they have-and that, together with the stress of two jobs, nagging worries about debt, and the disparities between ordinary Americans and the very wealthy, adds to the discontent of todays middle class. The yen to travel illustrates rising middle-class expectations. The Kerleys loved to camp in the 1970s, but rarely strayed far from home. "We've never been farther north than North Carolina. Never been out West," Dennis Kerley says without regret. Although they made two pilgrimages to Walt Disney World in Florida, a typical 1970s vacation was four nights of camping about twenty miles away on the shores of Chickamauga Lake, within sight of the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant. Dennis's parents would go along, and after the kids were put to bed, the adults would build a fire and toss out fishing lines. (One unpleasant feature of the times: The river was so polluted that they could see the debris float by.) In the winter, Dennis would work a couple of days of readily available overtime, then drive the family to Daytona, Florida, for a long weekend at the cheapest beach-front motel they could find.
The Blentlingers, by contrast, have been as far away as a remote corner of British Columbia, where they met at a Christian youth camp. Vacations in the 1990s mean flying to Texas or Illinois to visit Jim's family, or long weekends in North Carolina or South Carolina with Ann Marie's parents-but they long for more. They describe their one long weekend in New York City as if doing a tourism promotion ad ("I thought riding the subway was great," Jim says). In 1994, Ann Marie's parents paid her way to Paris, where her mother and grandmother were chaperoning a group of Chattanooga high school students. "This trip opened my eyes," she says.
Gauging standards of living means more than taking an inventory of a family's possessions and comparing vacations. Broadly defined, living standards go beyond vacuum cleaners and television sets to the quality of the air that people breathe, the health of their children, their safety, and their sense that they are doing as well as their neighbors are. By such measures, the story of the middle class over the past twenty-five years is mixed. city since the early 1960s. "It looked like pictures of the L.A. smog that you used to see," adds his wife, Brenda. Today, the air is clean and the city, which operates one of the nation's largest fleets of electrically powered buses, is trying to promote itself as a center for environmental research and technology. One of the city's grungiest factories, U.S. Pipe & Foundry, is even growing pine trees around its perimeter to present a greener face to motorists passing by on the interstate.
But in cleaner, healthier Chattanooga, crime is a far greater worry to the Blentlingers than it was to the Kerleys twenty years before. In 1992, Ann Marie's father was shot as he ran fleeing from a mentally disturbed college student who suddenly pulled a gun from her purse. He wasn't seriously hurt, but the incident has made him far more cautious than he had been before. More recently, Jim and Ann Marie Blentlinger were shaken-and still are-by an incident they witnessed in the church parking lot downtown, in the summer of 1994. A car drove up, a young man got out, asked a group of teenagers for a cigarette, and then punched one of them in the jaw without any apparent provocation.
And it isn't just crime that makes the Blentlingers uneasy They correctly sense a disturbingly large gap between themselves and the bestoff Chattanoogans, the ones living in the posh new houses that have been built in the mountains overlooking the city They wonder how some of the other young families in their Baptist church can afford so much more than they can. "If I could afford it, I'd like to be on Signal Mountain. There are so many good neighborhoods, and it's a good area as far as schools go," Ann Marie says. Signal Mountain, where the median household makes twice as much as the median household in the Blentlingers' Red Bank neighborhood, is favored by Chattanooga's new money, by DuPont managers, and by up-and-coming lawyers.
In the 1970s, few hourly workers even thought about living near the boss, so such disparities weren't much of an issue. "it was almost like a caste system," says Ray Childers, the former DuPont supervisor. But if some social and psychological distance between workers and managers has narrowed over twenty years, the economic distance has widened. In 1973, DuPont's chief executive earned 29 times the median earnings of male American workers. Twenty years later, the CEO earned 41 times as much. According to the 1990 census, 3,500 Chattanooga families had incomes more than triple the local median family income-that is, over $ 100,000. By this rough definition, the number of affluent families by 60% over twenty year period in which the overall number of families grew by only 16%.
Middle-class resentment shows itself differently in Chattanooga, today than it did during the early 1970s, when the city's restive bluecollar workforce was ready to walk off the job during fights with management. It now focuses on institutions identified with the expanding affluent class-in particular, a $45-million aquarium. The privately financed aquarium is the focal point for the city's ambitious downtown rejuvenation, but many longtime residents see it as a plaything for the suburban elites. "I like to go to aquariums, but I never go to Chattanoogas," says Ray Catlett, a middle-aged machinist who has lived in the area his whole life. He calls the aquarium "the bull's eye" for populist resentment.
Some of the inequality of the past twenty-five years reflects unusual economic forces that probably will prove unique to the Age of Anxiety. The decline of labor unions removed one of the floors that kept wages from falling. Twenty years ago, close to 25% of all public and private employees were union members; today, less than 15% are. A wave of immigration-the greatest in 70 years, adjusted for the size of the U.S. population-widened the gap between the well-paid and poorly paid by vastly increasing the pool of unskilled workers, even as it enriched Americans in other ways. The demographics also were unusual: The baby boom entered the workforce, and so did millions of working moms. Nearly two-thirds of all mothers of children under six years old are in the workforce, twice the proportion twenty years ago. None of these forces will persist with such strength for another twenty years: unions can't get much weaker. Americans won't permit as much immigration. And, whatever the economic consequences of the baby boom and the rise of the working mom, both have been absorbed by the economy already.
Today, Chattanooga's economy-like much of America's-is on the rebound. But the uneasiness is slow to dissipate, despite the euphoric reports about the economy in the press, and President Clinton's boastful speeches.
DuPont is investing in its Chattanooga nylon plant again: modernizing machinery: adding product lines, and even hiring new workers, though largely to replace retiring older ones. But the memory of the hard times of the 1980s hasn't faded for Kerley and his colleagues. Ominously, in their view, the company is relying on outside labor contractors to do a growing portion of what it calls "peripheral" worktasks like shipping and receiving. The company insists these cheaper workers will be laid off first if business turns sour-, Kerley and his coworkers worry that DuPont won't keep its word.
Still, Dennis now has substantial seniority and is finally getting the opportunity to become an electrician, the highest paying blue-collar job at DuPont. He is taking college courses at the plant, and the company pays for the training. But, to save money, the company isn't paying wages for the hours Kerley logs in the classroom, as it did for earlier groups of workers. Most weeks, he is expected to put in 40 hours at DuPont plus 16 unpaid hours in the classroom. Given the choice of training to be an electrician or a maintenance technician, both of which pay the same, Dennis chose electrician because he figures that's a more marketable skill, should he ever have to leave DuPont.
Jim Blentlinger still maintains his unshakable optimism, even though he has been forced to change jobs so often. He lifts his wife's spirits when they sag. But when her father, Herb Hooper, reflects on his daughter's and son-in-law's prospects, he frowns. "They'll have to work as har Brenda and I have worked," Hooper muses, "but they won't have the income to show for it. I think they'll continue to live with more uncertainty-just because of the times."