A Search For The Disappearing Middle Class

As the U.S. recovers from the Great Recession, one fact that's emerging is that while jobs are coming back, most are either high- or low-paying. NPR's Kelly McEvers is reporting on the disappearing middle. Host Arun Rath talks with Kelly about her first piece of the project, a look at her hometown of Lincoln, Ill. They also discuss her upcoming work.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

2013 was a year of big change for NPR correspondent Kelly McEvers. She said goodbye to her post in Beirut, Lebanon, where she was covering the Syrian conflict, and she came here to NPR West, where she started a long-term look at the decline of the American middle class.

While the overall jobs picture in the U.S. is looking better, middle-class jobs are not coming back. And Kelly saw that in full living color in her hometown, Lincoln, Illinois, where she began her reporting.

We'll talk to Kelly about her project in just a few minutes, but first, let's hear that piece.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: I'm sitting on a rusty park bench in Lincoln, Illinois. About a century and a half ago, Abe Lincoln christened this place right here with a cup of watermelon juice. I remember when I was in high school, this old depot building had been converted into a fancy restaurant. And this is where you would go on your way to prom. Now, the restaurant is closed, the depot building is overgrown, the little watermelon monument is all faded.

A few days ago, I came back here to Illinois and I got off the train in Lincoln. And I just could not help but be struck by this question: What happened to my hometown?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

MCEVERS: I head to the county courthouse to see Troy Brown, a friend of my brother's from grade school. He's now a probation officer. I ask him what happened to Lincoln.

TROY BROWN: The drug use has skyrocketed. The unemployment rate has skyrocketed. And just the general attitude - just no hope, I think, with a lot of young people, especially. I don't know, really, when it changed, but it seemed to be overnight.

MCEVERS: Brown has seen that change up close. The crime rate is steady, but drug-related offenses are going up. And the drug of choice these days...

BROWN: Kids that are using heroin. They're snorting heroin.

MCEVERS: So much heroin, Brown says, there's an overdose every week. And that's in a town of just 14,000 people. A handful of people have even died. Brown says, sadly, heroin is keeping him in business.

BROWN: Lincoln has really plummeted to the point where I would love for our office to have cuts because there's no more crime. But we're so swamped, it's just the exact opposite. I mean, I hate to say it, but I have, like, total job security here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible), go ahead.

KEN GREENSLATE: 10-24, unable to locate.

MCEVERS: Ken Greenslate is the chief of police in Lincoln. He shows me a new part of town just off Interstate 55, which connects Lincoln to Chicago, a few hours north.

GREENSLATE: And we've had a new hotel go up there - the Hampton - and also...

MCEVERS: The city council has increased the sales tax on businesses like these to renovate schools.

GREENSLATE: Thornton's Truck Stop...

MCEVERS: And Lincoln recently got a grant to refurbish its downtown. But like in so many towns across the Midwest, the population is shrinking and getting older. Factories have been closing since the '80s and '90s. Since the recession, the few factories that remain tend to hire temp workers at lower wages with no benefits. There is one new plant in town, a warehouse and distribution center for food products.

GREENSLATE: However, its starting wages for its semi-drivers, not so great.

MCEVERS: Like 18 bucks an hour. This is the new reality that economists say is hitting so many communities across the U.S. Jobs are being created, but they are not middle-wage jobs. In Illinois and its neighboring states, the most jobs coming back are low-wage jobs. In Lincoln, where unemployment is 8.4 percent - a point higher than the national average - the few middle-class jobs that remain are in health care, teaching and prisons. Police Chief Greenslate says that means some people turn to crime.

What would you say is the biggest challenge facing this town right now?

GREENSLATE: We need more jobs. We need more and better-paying jobs. You know, when people don't have work, then they have time on their hands. And when they have time on their hands, there's more opportunity for them to find things they shouldn't be doing.

MCEVERS: Before our tour is over, Greenslate gets a call. Police have stopped two suspects with 15 pounds of marijuana they think have come from Mexico. An informant tells police more suspects are holed up in a migrant worker motel down the street.

GREENSLATE: Let's go pull in there and see. OK. They're going away from there. Let's go stop those guys.

MCEVERS: Greenslate barrels his SUV up to the motel and corners the two suspects.

GREENSLATE: Do not move. Let me see your hands. Hands. Hands.

MCEVERS: We just stopped at this hotel, and now they are detaining two suspects. The guy's trying to get away a little bit. He's trying to fight. The police chief is cuffing them. One of the suspects kind of looks like he's about to cry.

Turns out one of the suspects is carrying a duffel bag with another five pounds of pot. The intended buyer for these drugs, the police say, a 14-year-old boy from right here in Lincoln. The next day, I meet Joe Plummer, one of my high school classmates, at the Steak 'n Shake out by the interstate. Joe and his wife, Josie, have three teenage girls between them. They say they worry about the drugs and the crime in Lincoln.

So how do you feel like you keep your kids safe?

JOSIE PLUMMER: I teach them how to shoot, gun safety. We have lots of guns.

JOE PLUMMER: I have 35 guns in my house. Every one of my daughters, and my wife, know how to handle a weapon as well as anybody could handle one. I'll just shoot at the gong for now.

MCEVERS: OK.

Joe takes me to the firing range where he teaches his girls to shoot so-called assault rifles, like an AR-15 and an AK-47, that he keeps locked in a safe at home.

PLUMMER: Are you ready?

MCEVERS: Uh-huh.

And a handgun he keeps on his bedside table.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

RICHARD LONGWORTH: What's going on in Lincoln is going on in a lot of places.

MCEVERS: Says Richard Longworth of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He says America's declining middle class means small towns are starting to have a lot more in common with crime-prone neighborhoods in big cities. He also says towns like Lincoln need to realize this is not just about the recession. This is about a long, slow decline.

LONGWORTH: You know, the earth isn't going to open up and swallow them. They'll survive, but they'll be backwaters - getting, you know, ever more what you saw: shrinking in population, population older, young families not moving in, high school grads like yourself moving away to seek their fortunes somewhere else.

MCEVERS: Longworth says for communities to survive in this new reality, they'll have to reinvent themselves - try to keep the factory alive, attract people who are willing to work the lower-wage jobs. Otherwise, what happens to towns like Lincoln will be just another episode in what he says is nothing short of a major societal upheaval.

LONGWORTH: I grew up in a middle-class America where we pretty much knew life was an escalator. You got on the bottom step and if you behaved yourself, paid your dues, went to work, worked hard, you'd end up at the top of the escalator. And I think that escalator's broken now. It's a tougher scramble.

MCEVERS: How to cover that upheaval? I ask.

LONGWORTH: You've covered revolutions before. Treat it like just another damn revolution.

MCEVERS: Sounds like a plan.

RATH: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers reporting from her hometown of Lincoln, Illinois. Kelly is here in the studio. And it's always weird to go home, but it's got to be especially weird to go home as a reporter.

MCEVERS: Yeah. I didn't exactly plan it. You know, I did actually get off the train that day and there was a guy sleeping in the station there who clearly had been sleeping there for a couple of days. And this is my Ozzie and Harriet hometown. And I was like, wait a second. What happened here? I mean, I think when you go home, you always have this nostalgic vision of what you're going to see, and it's always going to be different than that, right?

But, you know, after the story aired, I think a lot of people wrote to me - who'd grown up in Lincoln - and said, thanks for doing this. I see the same things when I come home.

RATH: And what was the reaction you had from the people there in town?

MCEVERS: Right. So people who had left by and large had the same kind of reaction I did. People who've stayed in Lincoln, this was a hard piece for them to hear. You know, there's a lot of great people in Lincoln. There's a really strong faith community in Lincoln. There's a lot of people - there's, you know, robust volunteer programs, people who really believe in the town. This town is not dying, you know?

And so - but it was hard for them to hear about the crime and the drugs, things they know that are happening in their town, but they didn't want to hear that their town was being characterized in this way.

RATH: And that's, you know, a dramatic thing to say, the feeling that there's no hope.

MCEVERS: Right. I mean, that was definitely what one person said, and that's not how everybody feels. What we were trying to do is talk about Lincoln as one example in this sort of post-manufacturing Midwest of what happens when those jobs go away and similar jobs don't replace them.

RATH: And the dramatic contrast, how long ago were you talking about that it was just - it was not like this?

MCEVERS: Well, I mean, it's slow, right? It's not the kind of thing. I mean, that's why when you come back, I think you notice the difference more, you know? If you'd live there every day, you don't see it. You know, in 2002, a mental hospital closed and thousands of people lost jobs. And then, you know, factories kind of slowly started closing, then came the recession. So each step along the way, I think, was, you know, part contributed to that decline.

RATH: So your most recent reporting on the decline of the middle class will be on MORNING EDITION this coming week. You went to Oregon. What did you find there?

MCEVERS: It was really interesting. I'd been reading all kinds of economic studies and talking to economists. And it just so happens that there's one manufacturing industry in Oregon that during the recession basically just disappeared. And so there was a lot of really interesting numbers on that. There's the RV manufacturing industry, which - who knew? Oregon was the number two RV manufacturing center of the world after...

RATH: Would've said logging, of course.

MCEVERS: Right. That was the first decline in Oregon, right? So Elkhart, Indiana, is number one; Oregon is number two. And so in the recession, you know, almost 10,000 people lost their jobs in this industry. And the Oregon employment department has kept kind of interesting numbers of what's happened to them since.

The bottom line is that two-thirds of these people have lost a major chunk of their wages even if they've gotten other jobs. If they're employed now, they're making a lot less than they were before. So what we did is we sort of took those studies and we went to the people. We're like, what does this mean for actual human beings - so people who were doing really well before who are doing sort of so-so now, people who were doing so-so before are not doing so great now and then people who were just barely getting by before and who are really struggling now. That's like 36 percent of the people - people who had no reported income whatsoever over the last four years.

RATH: Wow. And that feels especially dramatic in Oregon where I know, you know, in the '90s, places like Portland were being held up as this model of, like, livable cities and the way things should run well.

MCEVERS: Sure. And this is just one little corner of Oregon. You know, I mean, I think the tech industry - there's industries in Portland that are still doing really well. The knowledge economy is like alive and well in Portland. But again, we're just looking at a certain type of economy that's kind of disappearing. There are things replacing it.

You know, some of the interesting data coming out, when you talk about the disappearance of middle-wage jobs, they are being replaced by low-wage jobs. But they're also, in some places, being replaced by high-wage jobs. It's just that what's happening is we're seeing a lot of polarization and sort of a loss of this middle. And there's some really interesting people doing interesting studies of what does the loss of that middle mean, and that's what I'm going to be reporting on.

RATH: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers. She's been reporting on the declining middle class in America joining me here in the studio. Thanks, Kelly.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

RATH: Merry Christmas.

MCEVERS: Thanks.

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