MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, how researchers and activists struggling to contain the global AIDS epidemic are now fighting to get funding during the worldwide recession. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.
But first, we take a look at the middle class. These are the people whom American political leaders always claim they're fighting for.
Unidentified Man #1: You can't have a strong America without a growing middle class.
President BARACK OBAMA: Joe and I are going to keep on fighting for what matters to middle-class families.
Unidentified Woman #1: You don't raise taxes on anyone in the middle of a recession, and if you can provide tax cuts to the middle class, all to the better.
Unidentified Man #2: You know, Washington is hanging the middle class out to dry.
Unidentified Man #3: It's the middle class that's hurting. It's the middle class that's concerned.
MARTIN: But while most of us consider ourselves part of the middle class, we're not always clear about just who's in it.
NPR decided to explore this question in the new series Living in the Middle. Across the network, you will hear personal stories of those striving, struggling and succeeding in the American middle class.
To tell us more about the series and middle-class life, I'm joined by NPR's national desk editor, Uri Berliner. He's here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Also with us is Michelle Montgomery. She's a stay-at-home mom who, with her husband, is raising three kids on one middle-class income, and she joins us from member station WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
Ms. MICHELLE MONTGOMERY: Hi, Michel.
URI BERLINER: Hello, Michel.
MARTIN: Uri, thanks for coming down the hall to talk to us.
BERLINER: Of course.
MARTIN: So what gave you the idea for the series?
BERLINER: Well, you know, part of it is what you were describing earlier is that politicians love to claim the middle class, and the middle class is the holy grail of any political campaign. And we've been hearing a lot about how the middle class is doing.
We wanted to take a look at some of the real numbers. The Census Bureau came out with some new numbers last month, and we decided to dig into those.
MARTIN: So drum roll, what's the number?
BERLINER: Well, the number is if you want to look at the median household income, that means half the households make more, half the households make less, the number, most recent number is $49,777.
MARTIN: Okay, let's say that again, $49,777. And does family size matter?
BERLINER: That's household, so it could be a household of one or a household of 10.
MARTIN: And how did we decide who to talk to as part of this conversation about the middle class? I would assume part of it is you want people who think of themselves as middle class. Is it still true that most of us do?
BERLINER: Right, I mean, it is. I think if you ask Americans, almost all of them say sure, I'm middle class. They could be making $25,000 a year, they could be making $250,000. It's really more of a self-identification.
One of the great things about this country is we don't have like an official government agency that determines this is middle class, and this isn't. It's a self-described thing.
MARTIN: And, Michelle, we found you because you responded to our Facebook requests. Is that right?
Ms. MONTGOMERY: That's correct. Yes, that's correct. I was on Facebook and saw your call for people who are in the middle class.
MARTIN: Well, tell us a little bit about your family.
Ms. MONTGOMERY: Okay. Well, I'm a mother of three. I'm married to my husband, who's an Irish citizen but a U.S. resident. We met and married over in Dublin, Ireland, and spent the beginning of our marriage there.
MARTIN: So why did you decide to come back here?
Ms. MONTGOMERY: Well, that was always sort of our understanding is that when I would become pregnant with our first child, we would come back and be close to my family and experience my culture for a while because we had always been over there together.
MARTIN: Now, it's my understanding that your household income was quite a bit higher, right, when you first started out, before the kids came.
Ms. MONTGOMERY: It would have been. With us both working and working in careers that we had been in for years over in Ireland, we were making probably close to $120,000 together our first couple years of marriage.
MARTIN: So you voluntarily took that significant pay cut, or did that just happen?
Ms. MONTGOMERY: We voluntarily did that. We always knew that we wanted for me to stay home with our children. We have a small window of time with them, and we wanted to be here in the States.
And so obviously, the change of venue with the change of family status kind of led to the fact that we were going to take a very significant pay cut.
MARTIN: As a card-carrying member of the middle class, how would you describe like, if I were a pollster, and I were to say is the country on the right track or the wrong track, are things working for you right now, how would you answer that question?
Ms. MONTGOMERY: Oh, that's a very interesting question. I suppose it's multi-faceted. There are definitely very significant areas I see that we are struggling in. Like when it comes to health care, that's our single biggest expense with a family of five.
But in other areas, I think we've been very lucky to have been maybe shielded from the recession just a bit, you know, just simply because of our position and what my husband does, working he works in the hospitality industry, at a bar, and people are still drinking. So we've been lucky in that regard.
MARTIN: Interesting. That's an interesting way to look at it. So, Uri, when you talk to people like Michelle, she mentioned the high cost of health care as being one of the big stressors in her life right now. How common a theme was that?
BERLINER: Health care was definitely one of them. We found that in just about every family, there was a significant point of stress, whether it was health care, the inability to save for retirement, how are we going to pay for these kids to college.
It could be just sort of, okay, what happens if we have to buy a new car, if this one breaks down? So there was in almost every case, there was a significant point of stress. It wasn't a little, minor-league thing.
MARTIN: And was this true across the country because some parts of the country are more expensive just in the cost of living than others.
BERLINER: Absolutely, and that was another interesting thing we found. We found people, one of the stories was about a professional woman in the Washington, D.C. area. She's got a pretty good salary, around $50,000, but it doesn't go that far here.
And we found folks who are in places like Arizona or Alabama, where their money goes a lot farther. And so there are big regional differences, as well.
MARTIN: And what about people's sense of equanimity or peace of mind about their lives, their sense of whether they were in control of things, or do you know what I mean?
BERLINER: Absolutely. It was interesting. I mean, I don't think you can make any grand conclusion. There were some people we talked to who felt, despite the recession, that they were going to do better in the future, they were going to make more money, their children were going to do better.
We found people who were somewhat like Michelle, where they had consciously decided to downsize, to work less, to spend more time with their children, knowing that they were going to have to sacrifice materially. And they were happy with that decision.
Of course, we found many, many other people who were very worried because there are these big points of anxiety. Okay, somebody lost a job in my family, or we both have jobs, but we can't save for retirement, we can't save to send the kids to college. We can barely get by from day to day.
MARTIN: What about anger? We keep hearing so much about anger in this election year, that there are people who are just really angry out here about the way the government is operating or about the condition that they find themselves in, even though they feel like they played by the rules. Did you get a sense of that?
BERLINER: I didn't get a sense so much of anger, but there's a lot of worried people out there but not anger.
MARTIN: Michelle, when you think about it, you and your husband made a conscious choice to live a certain way, to stay connected to your kids so that you could stay home with them. And do you feel optimistic about where things are or pessimistic?
Ms. MONTGOMERY: Yeah, I think we feel optimistic that things will get better. I mean, this is obviously kind of a tough time for us with three small children, with one income. But we see it as a window of time that we're making sacrifices, some foreseen and some that we didn't even know we'd be making.
We came into this with our eyes open. And so we think that, you know, this will turn around, and our kids will grow, and I'll start working again, and the economy will look up, and things will get better. But at the moment, you know, we do acknowledge that this is tough.
But I guess we're optimistic that we can make this work and that the payoff will be worth it, you know, that we'll have happy, well-adjusted members of society and, you know, people that we raised and that we were able to spend this time with them.
MARTIN: Have you thought about going back to work perhaps sooner than you might have wanted to in order to get a little bit more of a financial cushion?
Ms. MONTGOMERY: Well, I work part-time at the moment, kind of on the off-hours when my husband doesn't. So I do put in, you know, a few hours a week to try to help out.
But really, as much as I probably should think about it, with three small children and all the expenses that comes with working full-time with three small children, I don't know even if that is a possibility at the moment.
MARTIN: And given the cost of child care, what it would take to...
Ms. MONTGOMERY: Yeah, child care and formula and, you know, then my lunches and the extra gas and a new wardrobe for me, all the things you'd need when you have a full-time job that I no longer have.
So, yeah, I just at this point, I think we're ready to see it through, to raise these kids and to have them as being ours until they go to school, and then we'll see what our options are then.
MARTIN: Michelle Montgomery is raising three children with her husband in Columbus, Ohio. She joined us from there. Uri Berliner is the national desk editor at NPR, and he was with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. I thank you both so much for speaking with us. And, Michelle, good luck to you and your family.
Ms. MONTGOMERY: Thank you. Thank you so much.
MARTIN: If you want to check out more stories from the Living in the Middle series, just go to npr.org.