TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The expression the vanishing middle class has a lot of meaning for people like Mat Johnson, who grew up on the sinking side of the income imbalance. He's going to tell us about that in a personal essay he's written about watching his mother try to keep from getting deeper in debt. He last joined us on FRESH AIR to talk about his novel "Loving Day."
MAT JOHNSON: (Reading) When it was hot, the bill my mother wouldn't pay was the gas one. This meant peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and also dinner peanut butter sandwiches or fruit or anything else good that didn't have to be cooked or refrigerated. In the colder months, her neglected bill of choice was the electric, which meant reverting to an agrarian sleeping schedule - up at dawn, down at sunset and candlelight, despite the fact that the larger city of Philadelphia glowed alive outside our window. In the apartments where we had electric heat, we warmed ourselves by turning the oven up high and leaving his door hang open, my mom's fingers held wide to catch its heat like it was a campfire.
The phone being turned off was my favorite because it just meant more conversation and walks to the payphone two blocks away for essentials. These periods would last weeks or hours, whatever it took to get her next payday. My mom couldn't pay the bills on time during this period because she was generally broke - a full-time college student also working a full-time clerical job all while being a full-time mother as well. Without sufficient funds, some months she had to choose which bill could get paid, which bill could get paid late, which bill couldn't get paid that month at all. But eventually, whatever was turned off would be turned on again, after paying the original balance plus the late fee plus the reconnection fee plus sometimes having to lose a day of work and pay to stay home for the technician to eventually show up and bring us back into the modern age.
On top of the existing cost of her keeping her house a home, which she already could barely afford, my mom paid the poverty tax. And that informal poverty tax wasn't just on utilities. It was there in her bank account where $45 overdraft charges could accumulate into hundreds in a day. It was there in the high interest rate when she bought a car and finally bought a home, rates that may have also been higher because her blackness was factored into her loan. She wasn't just struggling with poverty. She was also struggling with effectively being fined for being poor and what together became a societal mechanism to keep her poor as well.
The three words vanishing middle class are a popular way of describing America's increasing income inequality, our slow but steady move to a polar society of haves and have-nots. But in my head, it's a sterile, nebulous phrase evoking the image of an idealized 1950s family slowly fading into grey. At best, it hints towards the long-term elements - stagnated wages, a statistical trend towards a lack of upward economic mobility and a generation shift downward. It's evidenced in omnipresent and omnivorous check-cashing storefronts which offer broke people the opportunity to further break themselves at usury rates, appliance rental companies that cause customers to pay more over time for essentials than they ever would have if they can manage good credit and an arcane credit-rating system that lowers scores drastically just for having small balance allotments or minor payment latenesses years before.
I managed to get to the middle class and grab enough of a foothold to stay in it - knock on a forest of wood. I teach at a large university in Houston and I'm fortunate to be one of the salaried professors here, as opposed to the freelance adjunct professors on campus, some of whom teach more classes than me - and get paid far less - with none of my job's benefits. I drive home to my middle-class suburb through the poverty of the Third Ward, past people who are paying far more for many of the expenses of living even though I make far more.
It would be nice to sit in my car and think that the difference between my lifestyle and theirs was just down to hard work. But I'm under no such delusion. I'm where I am in part because of my mother's sacrifice, in part because I also had a white middle-class father a few miles away who was active in my life and invested in my education. I worked hard, sure, but nobody works harder to survive than poor people. I just got some good breaks and so do many of my ancestors.
A wealthy friend told me recently that this was an anti-rich moment in America. But I see Donald Trump on TV constantly bragging about the billions he says he has, and his crowd is cheering. I think most Americans love the rich as long as they can convince themselves it's possible to join their ranks. But it's becoming increasingly obvious to even casual observers that there is no real right-angle triangle graph between our economic classes with a slow and steady gradient to the top. We are separated by cliffs incredibly easy to fall off and with few handholds to climb. The vanishing middle class sounds cold, moderate, gradual, but it's not. For far too many, this economic reality is hot, violent and now.
GROSS: Mat Johnson is the author of the novels "Loving Day" and "Pym." He's a professor in the University of Houston creative writing program.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the business and politics of selling guns. My guest will be Evan Osnos, who's written an article in The New Yorker about the NRA, the gun industry and concealed carry. He writes mass shootings and terrorist attacks have driven up gun sales, but most gun violence is impulsive and up close. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.