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What It's Like To Be A Part Of The 'Vanishing Middle Class'

Alberto Ruggieri
Getty Images/Illustration Works

When it was hot, the bill my mother wouldn't pay was the gas one. This meant peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and, also, dinner peanut butter sandwiches, or fruit or anything else good that didn't have to be cooked or refrigerated.

In the colder months, her neglected bill of choice was the electric, which meant reverting to an agrarian sleeping schedule, up at dawn, down at sunset and candlelight, despite the fact that the larger city of Philadelphia glowed alive outside our window.

In the apartments where we had electric heat, we warmed ourselves by turning the oven up high and leaving its door hanging open, my mom's fingers held wide to catch its heat like it was a campfire.

Mat Johnson's books include <a href="http://www.npr.org/books/titles/408585487/loving-day" target="_blank">Loving Day</a><em>,</em> <a href="http://www.npr.org/books/titles/137872346/pym" target="_blank">Pym</a><em> </em>and the graphic novel <em>Incognegro</em>.
/ Meera Bowman Johnson
Meera Bowman Johnson
Mat Johnson's books include Loving Day, Pym and the graphic novel Incognegro.

The phone being turned off was my favorite, because it just meant more conversation, and walks to the pay phone two blocks away for essentials. These periods would last weeks, or hours, whatever it took to get to her next payday.

My mom couldn't pay the bills on time during this period because she was generally broke: a full-time college student also working a full-time clerical job all while being a full-time mother as well. Without sufficient funds some months, she had to choose: Which bill could get paid? Which bill could get paid late? Which bill couldn't get paid that month at all?

But eventually, whatever was turned off would be turned on again — after paying the original balance ... plus, the late fee ... plus, the reconnection fee ... plus, sometimes having to lose a day of work and pay to stay home for the technician to eventually show up and bring us back into the modern age.

On top of the existing cost of her keeping her house a home, which she already could barely afford, my mom paid the poverty tax. And that informal poverty tax wasn't just on utilities. It was there in her bank account, where $45 overdraft charges could accumulate into hundreds in a day. It was there in the high interest rate when she bought a car, and finally bought a home — rates that may have also been higher because her blackness was factored into her loan.

She wasn't just struggling with poverty; she was also struggling with effectively being fined for being poor, in what together became a societal mechanism to keep her poor as well.

The three words "vanishing middle class" are a popular way of describing America's increasing income inequality — our slow but steady move to a polar society of haves and have-nots. But in my head, it's a sterile, nebulous phrase, evoking the image of an idealized 1950s family slowly fading into gray. At best, it hints at the long-term elements: stagnated wages, a statistical trend toward a lack of upward economic mobility and a generation shift downward.

It's evidenced in omnipresent and omnivorous check-cashing storefronts that offer broke people the opportunity to further break themselves at usury rates, appliance rental companies that cause customers to pay more over time for essentials than they ever would have if they could manage good credit, and an arcane credit-rating system that lowers scores drastically just for having small balance allotments or minor payment latenesses years before.

I managed to get to the middle class and grab enough of a foothold to stay in it — knock on a forest of wood. I teach at a large university in Houston, and I'm fortunate to be one of the salaried professors here, as opposed to the freelance adjunct professors on campus, some of whom teach more classes than I do — and get paid far less — with none of my job's benefits. I drive home to my middle-class suburb through the poverty of the Third Ward, past people who are paying far more for many of the expenses of living, even though I make far more.

It would be nice to sit in my car and think that the difference between my lifestyle and theirs was just down to hard work, but I'm under no such delusion. I'm where I am in part because of my mother's sacrifice, in part because I also had a white middle-class father a few miles away who was active in my life and invested in my education. I worked hard, sure, but nobody works harder to survive than poor people. I just got some good breaks and so did many of my ancestors.

The "vanishing middle class" sounds cold, moderate, gradual. But it's not. For far too many, this economic reality is hot, violent and now.

A wealthy friend told me recently that this was an "anti-rich moment" in America. But I see Donald Trump on TV constantly bragging about the billions he says he has, and his crowd is cheering. I think most Americans love the rich — as long as they can convince themselves it's possible to join their ranks.

But it's becoming increasingly obvious to even casual observers that there is no real right-angle-triangle graph between our economic classes, with a slow and steady gradient to the top. We are separated by cliffs that are incredibly easy to fall off, but which have few handholds to climb. The "vanishing middle class" sounds cold, moderate, gradual. But it's not. For far too many, this economic reality is hot, violent and now.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Mat Johnson