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Stuck in the middle: Why some middle-class families say they don't feel very middle-class

About 65% of people earning between $50,000 and $100,000 annually say they live paycheck to paycheck.
Benjamin Franklin
Posted at 4:53 PM, Apr 23, 2024

Things are busy at a Northern Virginia food pantry.

"The food at John's is available to anybody in the community," said Stepping with Leaders founder Januari Coates.

Coates showed Scripps News' Amber Strong some of the necessities her nonprofit stocks for families, which includes more than food, but toiletries, too.

She says the pantry serves a variety of people: the elderly, the disabled and even middle-class families making between $50,000-$120,000 a year.

"Because in Northern Virginia, you're not paying no less than like $1900 a month for your place. So by the time you add in food cost between the two, you're already out like $3,500 to $4,500," she explained.

Olivia Simmons is a public school employee who says she always puts her students first, even when she doesn't have money to spare.

"A lot of these kids, they know me. They're always like, 'Miss Simmons, do you have a snack? Do you have something to drink?'" she told Scripps News.

At home she's a mom taking care of her family, including a daughter with autism and husband who suffers from mental illness.

"We're just like barely staying afloat. We're always like a paycheck away from losing it all," Simmons said.
The food here helps Simmons stretch her budget, especially considering the rising costs of housing in the area.

"I'm paying $1,840 a month now for a two-bedroom apartment, and then a three-bedroom was like $2,120 or $2,200 a month," she explained.

According to a report from Lending Club and PYMNTS, about 65% of people earning between $50,000 and $100,000 annually say they live paycheck to paycheck, struggling to pay the bills.

"If you live paycheck to paycheck, almost by definition you're not middle class because you don't have enough to save," explained Ioannis Spyridopoulos, an assistant professor of finance at American University.

Most Americans agree with that statement. In order to truly feel middle-class, people say they need the ability to pay the bills, pay an $1,000 emergency expense without adding debt, go on vacation, retire comfortably, and save, according to a survey from The Washington Post.

Spyridopoulos says the ability to do all those things goes beyond the basic definition of middle-class, which is making 2/3 of the national median household income. It also varies by family size, where you live, debt and job security.

"When automation comes, some of those jobs are getting replaced by machines, you know puts them in a position where they don't have that security, so they lose their jobs. And you know, combined with any form of debt that you may have that's going to of course put you in a very, I mean in a very difficult position," he said.

While inflation has cooled, housing and food prices remain higher than before the pandemic. It's leaving some middle-class households ... stuck in the middle: making too little to keep up with costs and too much for government assistance programs, something Spyridopoulos and Simmons believe could help.
"Subsidized child care, right. You literally cannot go to work if you don't have someone to take care of your child," Spyridopoulos suggested.

"I think that we need to have more policies to help make the, you know, housing market lower for people like us," said Simmons. "And even if you rent, they only going to allow you to go out maybe 18 months and then your rent's going up, no matter what happens — $100- $200 every year."

In the meantime, Simmons says she's still hopeful about the future.

"I mean life is short. And so we're still fed. We're not going to bed starved, you know, I mean. If it's rice and beans, then we'll eat rice and beans. It just is what it is and we make it work," she said.