Mike the Mad Biologist

Over the last few elections cycles, we’ve heard about the importance of various demographic groups: Bubbas, soccer moms, NASCAR dads, hockey moms, and so on. But Nan Mooney’s (Not) Keeping Up With Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class describes one demographic sector that has largely been ignored. Maybe it’s because they* aren’t ‘real Americans’, or perhaps they don’t have a catchy nickname.

Mooney’s book describes the economic problems facing college-educated professionals, including teachers, social workers, and, yes, scientists (contrary to popular belief, most science Ph.D.s are not tenured faculty). These are people who make between $30,000 to $100,000 per year. Many are still paying off student loans, and because of where their jobs require them to live, they are ‘housing stressed’–that is, they pay over thirty percent of their income in housing costs (the length of time that this group has been screwed is so extensive, I’m sure many don’t even realize that there was a time when thirty percent was viewed as obscene. Kinda like 30% annual interest rates…).

This group also is often independently employed, which means that their healthcare costs are very high, and the healthcare coverage they actually receive (i.e., co-payments) is quite poor. Additionally, there isn’t much job security, and incomes can fluctuate, leading to the additional accumulation of debt (beyond that from educational loans and housing loans). Finally, there’s the frustration of having done everything you’re supposed to do: you got into a decent school, got the extra degree, and yet, you are still faced with economic insecurity because you decided enter a not-very lucrative profession, perhaps even out of some sense of contributing to society.

What made this book poignant for me, besides the obvious self-identification**, is that it was published in 2008, and both the author’s and the subjects’ desperation are leaping off the page. It really puts into perspective how little this new Congress and president have done to help this demographic–which accounts for 17% of the voting population***. Arguably, this is a core constituency for the Democrats, especially Obama. Yet, the current crop of policies seem to be targeted to help the wealthy (or at least retain their status) and the poor. Helping the poor is the right thing to do, but the Democrats also need to help the middle class, particularly the segment of the middle class that is inclined to support them.

I think many scientists (and others) would gain a lot from reading this book.

*It’s odd to describe the group as they, when I identify with that group.

**Currently, I’m very happy professionally. But I don’t have tenure, so that level of economic security doesn’t exist for me. Also, I’m very lucky: yes, I was a good candidate for my current job, but what started the whole ball rolling was that a colleague and friend ‘knew a guy who knew a guy.’ Yes, I took advantage of the opportunity, but dumb luck played a big part. If this hadn’t worked out, it’s not unreasonable to think that I could currently be unemployed. And before that, most of my career, I was solidly lower-middle class (that’s not based on delusional self-identification, but on my annual income).

Comments

  1. #1 Katharine
    December 18, 2009

    Here’s what pisses me off about the OpenLeft post, though:

    “The cool, superior, professorial, above-the-battle, anti-populist “let’s not be hasty” approach may have worked in the fifties, but nowadays it annoys more people than it persuades.

    Beyond that, wonks tend to spend their lives in academic, professional, and administrative environments within which open conflict and the expression of anger are taboo (though of course plenty of conniving and backbiting goes on behind the scenes). For this reason wonks tend to be strategically and tactically impaired (and not just rhetorically when talking to the voters), since their method is to use sweet reasons and civil argument to try to reach a civilized consensus on the right answer to questions rather than to engage in the kinds of competition, gaming, haggling and struggle whereby decisions emerge from bitter multi-player battles.* ”

    It almost sounds like they’re ENCOURAGING people to be assholes and come to decisions in ways that perpetrate damage.

    I have to say I’m proud to be an anti-populist, because if someone’s too dumb to act like a normal human being and go about things civilly without resorting to acting like an angry gorilla, well, fuck ‘em, they can go to the loony bin.

  2. #2 Kaleberg
    December 18, 2009

    I agree. Too much attention is paid to the rich, who are assumed to be stupid and unmotivated, and the poor, who are also assumed to be stupid and unmotivated. The real middle class, Americans straddling the median household income, have been horribly neglected since the 1970s.

    Part of this is that they’ve bought the bill of goods that their interests align with those better off. It was the middle class that drank the Reagan Kool Aid, not the poor. The poor tend not to vote, and there aren’t enough rich people to vote to make a difference.

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