Part of the deceptive sense of falling behind reflects the elastic nature of being middle class. According to Pew, 70 percent of households now have two or more cars, and a similar share has satellite or cable TV; 66 percent have high-speed Internet; 42 percent already have flat-panel TVs. Thirty years ago, no one's parents had this inventory. More students go to college and graduate school, so more have debt. Health care is expensive in part because modern medicine can do so much. Someone has to pay. One in 10 households now has a vacation home.
"Progress" keeps draining our pocketbooks. Pew finds that four-fifths of Americans find it hard to maintain middle-class lifestyles; in 1986, two-thirds did. But today's middle-class anxieties transcend the well-advertised "squeeze" on incomes. The deeper source of disquiet, I think, lies elsewhere. Middle-class families value predictability, order and security, and these reassuring qualities have eroded. People worry about rising living expenses; but what really upsets them is the possibility that their incomes or fringe benefits -- pensions, health and disability insurance -- might vanish.
Read the rest of Robert Samuelson on middle class jitters and the loss of entitlement.