Stuck in the Middle With You: How The Middle Class Trap is Designed To Make You Struggle

America trots its strong middle class as a virtue, the backbone of society. It’s aspirational for many; an American middle-class lifestyle means a cozy house, a stable marriage, and a secure retirement. 

It’s the American ideal: summer barbeques, a yearly vacation, two cars, and a white picket fence. 

Unfortunately, the dream is far from reality. The middle class isn’t the epitome of American society; it’s a trap. 

The Middle-Class Trap

The middle-class trap keeps us fighting for scraps while the extremely wealthy laugh their way to the bank

The middle-class trap shares many similarities with the well-studied poverty trap. It’s an organized structure that keeps people in place.

Although the middle class is doing better than the working class, they’re still hanging by a thread, teetering on the brink of financial ruin. The pandemic and subsequent rise in inflation brought this to light in a big way, but it was always there, bubbling just beneath the surface.

The middle-class trap is an insidious snare of indentured servitude, debt, and escapism. On the surface, it seems like people stuck in the middle class are doing okay. 

People in this massive group generally have what the American Dream told us we want – but at what cost?

There’s Nothing Wrong With Being Middle Class

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being solidly middle-class. A robust middle class is fundamental to a strong society.

If everyone ascended into the upper-class ranks, the middle class would cease to exist. The middle-class trap isn’t about being stuck in the middle. 

It’s far worse. 

The middle-class trap keeps people teetering on the brink of ruin. Instead of looking upwards with a gleam in their eyes of what their futures hold and what opportunities their kids may have, folks in the middle stare down, terrified of losing it all.

There’s Something Wrong with Our System

Millions of people toil in the middle, hanging onto their class distinction by the barest thread.

Let’s look at a fictional middle-class man in his thirties. He’s married with two kids and makes a little above the average national salary, boasting an income of $60,000 per year. 

His wife also works, but although she’s educated and has tons of experience, she’s struggled to find a career outside of early childhood education. That wouldn’t be a problem if that weren’t such a low-wage field despite the exorbitant cost of daycare. They have a house and a car and can afford their children’s basic needs, along with a few wants. 

But they’re struggling.

Money Concerns

This family can’t afford a yearly vacation. He can’t even take a day off without risking his job. Like many Americans, he’s worked for 20 days straight to put food on the table.

His entire life is work, but it’s a feature of the system, not a bug. Companies want employees who are too tired and scared to look for other jobs. 

Retirement is a pipe dream. Their kids will need to take out massive loans if they want to attend university. Both parents are still paying off their own loans, and their property taxes go up yearly, making their mortgage harder and harder to afford. And these are the lucky ones who were able to buy a house before the massive surge in prices. 

And, of course, life happens.  Cars and appliances break. The roof springs a leak. Whenever they think they’ll finally get ahead, something happens, forcing them to take on even more debt. 

Is It Their Fault?

Some will say it’s their own fault. Victim blaming runs rampant in our society. It’s easy to point to others’ flaws and failures and assume those shortcomings are the reason for their financial distress. 

There’s often a hint of truth behind it. Perhaps they should have waited to have kids until they were more financially secure or should have worked through school to lessen their student loan burden. It’s incredibly easy to judge other people’s situations and point to all the things they could have done differently. 

It’s harder to take a step back and look at the big picture – realizing that millions of people are stuck in the same trap and considering there might be something systematic about it.

It’s by Design

I’d love to say it’s because of systematic problems, but if you step back, you’ll see they aren’t problems. 

The system is the way it is by design. 

There are structures in place designed to keep people trapped in their jobs. People stuck in the middle class are the best consumers. They buy things they don’t need to escape the monotony of their mundane lives. 

There’s no incentive to change it, to actually help the people feel safe and comfortable because they are doing precisely what the system wants them to do: working a menial job and buying stuff to fill the empty space in their lives – both of which puts profits into the hands of system architects.

Here are some structures that keep people stuck in the middle-class trap. 

Debt Culture

Middle-class millennials got drilled with the message that a college education is the key to a happy life. Everyone around them told them that attending university was their ticket to riches. 

After college, homeownership was paraded as the best asset for building wealth—the American dream banks on people striving for homeownership, after all. 

Although university education and homeownership are valid things to strive for, the insidious messaging skipped a critical part of the message: these things cost money and far too much. 

Attending college is one of the most expensive endeavors of most people’s lives. Ordinary people who want to get ahead need to sign up for outrageous student loans just for the chance of making enough money to be able to pay it off in the future. 

Homeownership is similar – housing costs have skyrocketed over the years, especially in areas with jobs. 

The massive cost of these two vital paths to success has led to enormous consumer debt

The situation is untenable.

Overall High Cost of Living

Debt repayment isn’t the only thing holding people back. 

Rampant inflation causes sky-high prices for everything we need to live. Long gone are the days of $100 weekly grocery budgets and rent payments under 30% of your take-home pay. 

Though healthcare, housing, and education are the biggest culprits, prices continue to increase in every facet of our lives. 

People teetering on the brink of financial ruin two years ago may find themselves plummeting ever deeper into a ravine of debt they can’t escape. 

Low Wages

A high cost of living wouldn’t be so oppressive if wages kept up with it. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

The minimum wage hasn’t increased in years. Real wages have declined over the past few years. 

With prices going up and wages remaining stagnant, it’s no wonder that the middle class is feeling squeezed. People can’t afford their basic necessities and lean on credit cards to help them through the month, continuing the cycle of endless debt. 

Healthcare Tied to Employment

Companies tout healthcare choices as a massive benefit, but in reality, the system of tying healthcare to employment keeps people trapped in dead-end jobs. 

How many people would take a risk and start their own business if they didn’t have to worry about healthcare? How many stay in miserable jobs because it’s the only way they can afford their prescription medications or medical treatments?

In the US, healthcare is a privilege available to the select few with decent jobs. Middle-class workers typically have it, and they’re terrified of losing it. 

The abusive marriage between healthcare and employment keeps people trapped in those jobs and leads to another huge reason why the middle class is in trouble.

No Protections at Work

More than half the states are so-called “right-to-work” states, and yes, that is some 1984 doublespeak. It means workers have no rights.

Businesses can fire employees on a whim, and union protections are sparse.

We usually talk about the lack of time off and worker protection for low-wage workers, but these structures also affect the middle class. 

Middle-class Americans struggle to access paid time off for sick leave, parental leave, and even vacations. They are terrified of making waves (i.e., even trying to unionize) because they need their jobs – Not only for the healthcare we just talked about but also to pay for the insanely high cost of living and to pay their debts. 

It’s not a sustainable situation.

Victim Blaming

Some people do make poor financial decisions. However, no one should risk a life of destitution because they made a few mistakes along the way. 

Nobody is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. And, despite what the just world fallacy tries to tell us, sometimes bad things happen through no fault of our own. 

The system purposefully punishes these mistakes and keeps people trapped in a vicious cycle of debt. They know if they don’t play ball, they risk losing everything. 

How Do We Fix It?

The solutions to the trap we find ourselves in aren’t politically popular – yet. 

UBI, healthcare for all, and free access to higher education would help immensely, but politicians are masters at spinning these ideas as somehow evil while corporations continue to rake in record profits. 

Individuals continue waking up to the trap at record rates. The FIRE movement gains momentum as people decide they no longer want to dedicate their entire lives to working. Millennials opt out of parenthood at record rates as they realize having children will keep them trapped in the cycle for their whole lives. 

As more and more people refuse to engage in the system that doesn’t work for them, the powers that be will have to change things. They’re currently trying to achieve that by stripping people of their human rights and bodily autonomy, but hopefully, that will fail, and they’ll have to look to solutions that empower all of humanity rather than enrich the wealthy. 

I’m Stuck in the Trap – How Do I Get Out?

Digging yourself out of the middle-class trap is far easier than digging the whole of society out. 

Start with FIRE. Work towards your version of independence, and opt out of the system. Consider whether the life script you were sold truly aligns with your own goals and desires. Design the life that works for you, regardless of what others think. 

It won’t be easy, especially if you’re deep in it with kids and debt. But the light at the end of the tunnel proves that sacrificing a few years to get out is far better than remaining in the hole for all eternity. 

Further Reading on the Middle Class Trap:


 

14 thoughts on “Stuck in the Middle With You: How The Middle Class Trap is Designed To Make You Struggle”

  1. Great summary of the worst challenges facing the middle class. The real secret is how close most of the middle class really is to poverty and how little most of us realize this fact. You’re much more likely to be one medical issue or house repair into poverty than you are to be one great investment away from wealth, but almost everyone bets that the latter is more likely for themselves. It’s such a strange way of thinking…

    • It’s terrifying to think how close most of the middle class is to poverty. I think for most people, stopping to think about that is so much more stressful than hoping for the best with an investment, so I kind of get it.

    • I was going to bring this up too. It’s only the appearance of comfort or even mild stability, even when both people are working. I think two-income households are more common, though there are single income ones like your friend’s. But even then they might not make more than $60k combined. I think even at the median wage it’d be about $80k. Which… okay $20k more is a lot but it also comes with higher taxes. And just means that they’re slightly less stretched in affording basic living costs plus various societally expected loans (student, car, mortgage) and are able to save nominally for retirement. They’re still struggling.

      UBI could help. And yes yes people should be more frugal and less prone to escapism via material goods or vacations. But a) we all need SOME escape and b) some things like expensive phones are arguably necessary in this day and age. So you can’t escape some escapism.

      Like you I don’t have all or even many answers. Universal healthcare would be huge of course. That’s one of the primary financial dangers for most middle class people. But who knows when we’ll get around to it.

      • I think two income households are much more common as well, but then they have to pay for child care if they have young kids, which sometimes can eat someone’s entire salary. There are so many expenses that keep people stuck in this trap. And I agree…so many are struggling and teetering on the brink of poverty – it’s terrifying

  2. I also think it’s worth noting that one reason this is so hard to fix is that it’s so easy to end up in the whole FOMO cycle. For instance, hubby and I are in a place right now where a lot of our friends are doing the big “adult” things (buying houses, going on vacations, having kids, etc) which is fine, good for them, except it always leads to the inevitable questions about why we’re not doing the same — especially when our earnings would make us middle class. I wish I could say we’re immune to it, but I’m not going to lie: sometimes, it’s hard. Sometimes, I ask myself the exact same questions — why aren’t we buying a house? Why aren’t we buying a new car, one that’s more equipped for winter in Atlantic Canada? It almost always comes back to this: we don’t want to feel squeezed like that.

    I think you’re right, though, re: more people realizing how messed up things are. At least, I hope that’s the case.

  3. Having come to FIRE later (in my 40’s) and grown up in a household with a big emphasis on education, I think a big reason for my late AHA moment was b/c education is focused on employment with very little support for entrepreneurship and personal finances. Yet, if you look at the lifestyle trappings you point out — savings difficulties, buying a house, affording childcare — many of these issues could be addressed if people could create portfolio careers (essentially their own businesses) that work around their lives and also had good money management skills. Unfortunately, these two key areas require an individual to be self-taught and self-starting, and for people struggling just to get by that kind of time and energy is very limited. People clearly break out of the cycle so it’s doable, but it’s hard.

    • That is a great point. We focus on getting a job, on being something (like a dr, or lawyer, whatever). We don’t focus on what life is really about: meaning, being happy, etc. Our priorities are out of whack for sure.

  4. Melanie,

    Well-thought out article. You bring up some good points about how real wages have decreased and how someone with a $60,000 a year job may just getting by. Access to free higher education would be a most welcome addition. I’m lucky enough to live in a state (Nevada) where higher education costs are relatively low and high school seniors can receive a scholarship worth $10,000 over 6 years if they maintain a 3.25 GPA during high school.

    In my view, I think everyone would benefit from having a personal finance course in high school. I think budgeting and personal saving should be taught at early age so people can be more prepared for dealing with changing market forces and systemic issues.

    • Thank you! 10K over 6 years doesn’t seem to be all that much. Do you mean per year? If I remember correctly, my college cost about 10k per year, and that was a long long time ago. I definitely agree that everyone would benefit from a basic PF course. I didn’t have one in high school. It should be taught every year in an age appropriate way the way that US history is. I think that would help so much. Thanks for the comment!

      • I think people should be made aware of this trap early on so that they know what they are letting themselves info. They should also be given other options to either avoid it or escape it. There are cheaper options for everything, housing and cars especially. Also education is way over priced, hopefully the current push to online education with expose this more.

        At the end of the day its each person’s responsibility to take charge of their lives, ither to make the system work for you or to escape the system.

        • I agree – but financial education is severely lacking. It’s hard to do anything different when you’re told for your entire life that this is the script that needs to be followed. It’s hard to break free from that. The FI movement is doing a great job of it, but most of us find it after we’ve already been sucked into the trap – and now we’re trying to claw our ways out.

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