Several years ago, I hurt a readers feelings by reporting on the
amount of income it takes to be considered middle class in America
I cant remember the amount now -- it was probably some arbitrary
figure cooked up by an economics professor.
But I do remember the crushed look on her face as she said, If thats
how much money you need to earn, then Im no longer in the middle
To a single mom trying to get by on two part-time jobs, the income
level I reported in my column was a barrier to hope and the American
Being in the middle class is a very big deal in America because it
means youre okay. You havent slipped or been left behind. Youre
still a contender for the American dream of owning a home in a nice
part of town and providing for your family. Being middle class means
having enough money to have no worries for retirement -- something
that is increasingly a fleeting dream.
The readers words left an impression, and inspired me to revise my
definition of what it is to be middle class in America. You see,
although she had a limited income barely above the minimum wage, she
was somehow figuring out a way to send her daughter through college.
Perhaps that was with the help of grants, loans, and urging her kid to
take up the slack with part-time work and summer jobs, but somehow,
she was making it happen.
So Im no economist, but that has since become my measure of whether a
person is in the middle class: if they have the wherewithal to somehow
get their kid through college by hook or by crook.
What is money anyway? Many of us know people making six figures who
are house poor from three mortgages and neck-deep in credit card and
auto debt. Ironically, in America, you can be rich and widely
considered to be a member of the upper middle class and still be
poverty-stricken -- a slave to your Lexus payment and your six-bedroom
But to get a kid through college -- that takes good old-fashioned
middle-class values of hard work and gumption, brass-tacked to your
workboots (or high heels, as the case may be).
And these days, getting a kid through school is brutal. In addition
to the recession, there are factors such as rising tuition, housing
and food costs, and fewer student jobs to go around.
It lends credence to the calls from some sectors of academia to end
the traditional 4-year college undergrad education in favor of a
3-year degree. Why? Because many middle class parents and students
can no longer afford to go the distance for a 4-year degree.
Especially when todays 4-year degrees are packed with dubious
elective courses, the need for which defies the economic realities of
I cant imagine what sacrifices parents are going through to send
their kids to schools where the annual bill is $30,000 or more. My
wife and I were determined to spare our daughter the serfdom of
student loans when she graduates and weve paid the equivalent of a
nice starter home to her business college so far, just for a two-year
Obviously, as any college grad or parent knows, the money weve
spent and the years of learning wont guarantee a job in our
daughters hoped-for profession. What weve paid for runs more along
the lines of an experience, memories, and a chance at a good career.
Just a chance.
A chance, perhaps, to remain in the middle class, and someday pass on
the opportunity to a child of her own.
Over the past few months, sportsmen, environmentalists and political
leaders have warned of the threat of the Asian carp making its way
into Lake Michigan via the waterways from the Mississippi River.
But no ones been watching Lake Michigans back door.
Weighing up to 100 lbs., the carp are aquatic eating machines,
scooping up algae and plankton. The fear is that if they make their
way into the Great Lakes, they‘ll consume the lower end of the food
chain, starving trout and other fish species out of existence.
Theyre like the locusts of the river, says David Ullrich, executive
director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.
While attempts are (slowly) underway to block passage of the carp
through the canals and waterways of Chicago, a new threat has arisen
far to the east.
The Wildlife Volunteer, a publication of the Michigan Wildlife
Conservancy, notes that Asian carp have been found in Lake Erie as far
back as 1995. A carp was also captured in a commercial net off Point
Ontario in 2000.
Its believed that the carp were released from private ponds in Ohio,
or released by individuals in Toronto, where a large China town
provides a market for the fish.
This is sort of like getting flattened by a misguided driver on a
one-way street while youre watching for traffic coming from the right
direction. We need to start looking both ways if were going to send
the Asian carp packing.