Experts and struggling families say we need more jobs with good pay to save middle class

CINCINNATI - We know America’s middle class is shrinking. But did you know 600,000 people in our area are living in households where they’re just getting by?

It takes $48,600 in annual income for a Tri-State family of four just to cover basic expenses, says Ross Meyer, United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s vice-president of community impact. 

"Really, just basics — housing, transportation, food, utilities. Not saving for college, not handling a car breaking down, not really investing in the future.  That’s really just getting by," Meyer said.

And even that taxes the incomes of many working families.

Patricia Neal knows the feeling. She counseled people with substance abuse issues for years and was finally able to retire. However, that ended as bills piled up.

"We have three generations — my 92-year old mother, me and my daughter — living in this home to maintain it, keeping that middle-class status, and I’m now back at work," said Neal.

Nikki Steele of Winton Terrace has a job, but she has a hard time making ends meet for herself and her teenage daughter.

"I get the job and my rent goes up $400 because I got a job. I needed a car, so now you have a car payment to pay and you don’t qualify for medical assistance anymore so you have to pay for medical coverage.  It is a struggle," Steele said.

Think of the economy as an hourglass.

At the top are higher-pay,  higher-skill jobs that require a lot of education.

At the bottom are service-oriented jobs that are necessary but don’t pay that well.

The people in the middle are getting squeezed out of the hourglass.

The answer, like the problem, is with jobs.

"We simply don’t have enough of those middle-wage jobs that our economy used to have," says Meyer.

Even with Neal's daughter working and her mother’s Social Security, the Neal household has no money for dinners out or any frills.

"You still have to pay the same price for all your groceries. You still have to pay for car insurance.  I think that sometimes even goes up the older you get," Neal said.

It’s the same for Steele, who is long on optimism but short on ideas for ways to end the cycle.

"Get a second job. Work until you pass out and don’t have time with family — until you get burned out. I don’t know what the solution is.  We have to change policies and systems," Steele said.

Cincinnati has a poverty task force working on solutions right now.

But experts say it will take new efforts at the state and federal level to add the right kind of  jobs to help people climb the economic ladder toward middle class.

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