About a week ago, I scolded my 13-year-old stepson for complaining that he had to share a bedroom with his 11-year-old brother. I got more irritated than I should have, launching into a tirade about how he was lucky to have a roof over his head. Since we can scarcely afford to build an extension on our East Meadow ranch, he better get used to sharing a room, I huffed.
“And your house will be even smaller when you have a family.”
Although I kept that last line to myself, the mere thought struck at the core of why I was really angry: I’m doing worse than my parents did, and I fear that the outlook for my children is even bleaker. For me — a 38-year-old father of four — the pursuit of the American dream has become something of a nightmare.
I’ve tried explaining this to my parents, but it’s not an easy notion for them to accept. Mom and Dad broke their backs to ensure that my brothers and I had every shot to make our lives more comfortable than theirs. When I was a kid, my dad worked so much overtime that I often wondered if he was ever coming home. Although money was a constant concern, there was always food on the table and clothes on our backs. Mom and Dad scrimped for parochial school, took us on vacations and paid for college. We all got good jobs.
And yet there’s no disputing that John, Mike and I have less than our parents had.
In 1979, my father was able to buy a colonial in Bellerose, Queens, for about $45,000. If he’d been willing to move farther east, he could have found an even bigger, less expensive home. At the time, he was making $15,000 a year as a corrections officer, probably well over $20,000 with all the overtime. So he could buy a fairly spacious house for a mortgage of roughly twice his annual salary. My mom could stay home and take care of us, at least until we were all in school.
Some 30 years later, I was making about $65,000 a year as a New York City teacher. I couldn’t afford a house in my hometown, unless I wanted a dump that needed extensive renovations. The ranch I settled for in East Meadow, tiny compared with the house I grew up in, cost $400,000 — roughly six times my annual salary. My brothers opted to squeeze into co-op apartments rather than move their families out of northeast Queens.
My wife works full-time and has to care for the kids alone during the week, while I tutor after school to keep up with ever-rising expenses. I leave my house at 7 a.m. every weekday and often don’t get home until 10 p.m. I haven’t saved one penny toward my kids’ college. We’re lucky to go on vacation once every few years. I wish I could take my kids to see the Yankees play, but that’s almost as expensive as a weekend away.
Part of me tries to find the bright side. Perhaps having less and struggling more will build character, as it did in my grandparents, who suffered through the Great Depression, or my mother, who grew up with four siblings in a three-room tenement.
But part of me can’t help but be bitter. As a liberal, I desperately want to blame the right, but Democrats and Republicans have rotated in an out of Washington all my life. As political ideologies shifted from eight years of Bush to eight years of Obama, one thing remained constant: The middle class continued to struggle. And his promises notwithstanding, President Trump will likely do little to change our trajectory.
None of this is a secret. The story of the vanishing middle class has been well documented. When adjusting for inflation, average household incomes are roughly the same as they were in the late 1980s, and yet corporate profits and CEO salaries are at unprecedented highs.
It’s sad, because America is at its best when the middle class is thriving. Whenever we have extra money, it goes right back into the economy. Give a billionaire an extra billion and he’ll sink it into some bank account or market investment. Give a middle class guy an extra grand and he’ll actually spend it. The landscaper, the babysitter, the local restaurant and the clothing store all get a piece. It’s a win-win.
At some point, something has to give. I wish I knew enough about economics to offer a detailed solution, but I don’t. I imagine that higher salaries and lower taxes for the middle class would be a great start.
Former Herald Assistant Editor Nick Buglione is a freelance journalist and teacher who lives in East Meadow.