Middle Class And On Food Stamps

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Vauhini Vara draws attention to the plight of the lower-middle class – families who make between $15,000 and $60,000 a year:

Compared with the poorest families, lower-middle-class families are more likely to be headed by married couples and to benefit from two incomes. They are also more likely to include a family head who has attended college. So far, so good: studies have shown that children who live with two parents are more likely to be more economically secure and to be healthy, as well as to graduate from high school; other studies show similarly positive effects for children of college-educated parents. And parents benefit, too.

And yet, many of these lower-middle-class families are still struggling to get by. About 60 percent of families below the poverty line receive food stamps (shown in the chart [above] as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program); so do more than 20 percent of lower-middle-class people. All told, more than 30 percent of lower-middle-class people receive food stamps, unemployment benefits, welfare, or other benefits.

This matters for a couple of reasons.

It reframes how we think about the people who access government benefits. Many of them, it turns out, are married, college-educated, and working – that is, people whose choices reflect traditional values and whose plight should inspire sympathy from both the political left and right. And it highlights the structural problems that make it difficult for lower-middle-class families to make ends meet and to rise into a higher income bracket. If you’re a married, stay-at-home mom who wants to work, for instance, you face a dilemma: if your husband’s salary is low enough to qualify your family for government benefits, getting a job could actually cost your family more in taxes and lost benefits than staying out of the workforce.

Hamilton Nolan comments:

The lower class is the most important class. But the lower class has the advantage of at least being obvious in its wretchedness. The lower middle class, by contrast, is easy to forget. On the one hand, it’s easy to assume that they are doing okay, because they’re working; on the other hand, they don’t make enough money to assert any real political influence. And all the time, they teeter on the edge of economic oblivion.