The Restless Project: Trump’s Turn — Middle class budgets will tell the story

What does 'middle class' mean? What does 'doing well' mean?
What does ‘middle class’ mean? What does ‘doing well’ mean? What will “progress” mean in the next four years?

For two years, I’ve been chronicling what I called America’s “Restless” problem.   Today, I begin a new chapter in this effort.  The Restless Project: Trump’s Turn.

There’s been a lot of yelling and screaming during the past 12 months, but underneath it all, I know this: People are hurting, and they are scared.  America doesn’t work for American families any more; the struggle is real.  And it’s real up and down the middle class, from folks struggling to get by on Starbucks salaries to folks who feel like they earn a good salary (or two!) but still feel like they are falling behind.

About half of American don’t have one month’s living expenses saved up in case of an emergency.  All of them are living on the edge, one illness or job loss away from disaster. Many are already over the edge.

If that’s you, I want to hear from you.

A quick review of The Restless Project thesis (more at the link):

Regular Americans with regular jobs can’t buy regular homes or live regular lives any more. They can’t take weekends off.  They can’t imagine how they will pay for college or survive a serious illness.  About half don’t even have one month’s living expenses saved up in case of an emergency, like a job loss.  Yet everyone is working longer hours, checking email right before going to bed and the second they hit the snooze button on their alarm clocks.  We’re driving ourselves, and each other, crazy.   The middle class and is the forgotten class, and these distinctly middle class problems have been ignored.

Why? Because forces well out of our control are forcing impossible math on families.  Child care costs more than college. Starter homes have disappeared.  Health insurance care for a family costs $2,000  a month and counting. A home near a decent public school can cost twice as much as a home near a bad school – so, overpay for the home or overpay for the private school?

I could go on, and I have.  I’ve shown why earning $100,000 annually in many U.S. cities doesn’t support a decent life, though it seems it should.  I’ve shown thousands of zip codes where median incomes can’t support purchase of a median-priced home, which shouldn’t be possible.  I’ve talked about families where parents can’t afford to work because of child care costs, but can’t afford not to work, either.

The American middle class: caught between a rock and a hard place.

Whatever you think of the presidential election results, one theme that emerged from this year’s torturous campaign process was this:  Americans feel like they’ve been screwed.  Look past the surface, and you’ll see stunning similarities between the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump movements.  So many experts are surprised — stunned — by the frustration boiling out there between America’s coasts. It’s been said 100 different ways by pundits in the past few weeks.

I wish they had all been reading The Restless Project. The anger is no surprise to me. America is bursting with small cities full of boarded up buildings and kids on heroin.  Full of $30-an-hour factory jobs being replaced by $13-an-hour Walmart jobs. Most important, there is no hope.

America’s source of swagger, the idea that hard work guarantees you a decent life and maybe more, is all but gone.

Anyone who says Trump won — and Sanders almost won — for a single reason is lying to you.  Dozens of factors have combined to bring us where we are.  But most of them — sexism, racism, cult of personality — are well-represented in media already.  Here, I want to stick to the numbers. It’s impossible to separate politics from policy, but I’m sure going to try.

I want to talk about broken family budgets and how they might be fixed. So today, and for several days, I want to revisit the most successful part of The Restless Project, but with a twist. Two years ago, thousands of readers sent me emails with details of their monthly budgets. I got spreadsheets, text messages, screen shots. It was impressive.  Most folks showed me the raw, stark numbers, explaining how $4,000 in monthly take-home pay doesn’t make it to the 30th of the month. But others, mostly lucky to live in places like Texas with cheap housing, detailed how they  get by just fine on salaries as low as $35,000.

I want to revisit this exercise now, but I’d really like to focus on how a new presidential administration can help (or hurt).  Using family finances, what measure should we use to determine in two or four years that Republicans have helped the frustrated middle class.  Will insurance costs be lower?  Will housing costs go down? Will incomes, flat for a generation, start to rise?  Send me your budgets, but also send me your measures.

I don’t want to hear how much you hate Hillary or Trump. I want to hear about what really matters — your kids, your future, your sense of security.  Let’s talk about that.   And what would you need to see in four years to see that Trump’s Turn at The Restless Project has made a real difference?

As a reminder, here are some stories from this series:

How much money do you really need? Forget retirement, what’s your annual number? Let’s start with $100K

Do you live on under $60,000 a year? Tell me how

One income, zero hope: Not with two kids and one (big) student loan — The Restless Project

A happy ending, and lessons from the layoff: Plan before the disaster, and be humble enough to ask for help


The Restless Project: She has a good job, but will she have to leave New Orleans?

The Restless Project: $60k income doesn’t cut it for my family

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About Bob Sullivan 1620 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

1 Comment

  1. Bob, I enjoy your blog. I feel like you have a pulse on American economics. Thanks for being in touch with what is happening in our nation and in our struggles to live a decent life.

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