HOW WE GOT HERE: Winning a Seat in the Middle Class


HOW WE GOT HERE: Winning a Seat in the Middle Class

Whatever happened to the American dream? The middle class job that pays enough for you to buy a house, raise a family and
maybe even take a vacation every once in a while. The high-paying low-skilled jobs
once promised to high school graduates by the manufacturing sector now seem to
be in Michigan’s rearview mirror and the cost of a traditional four-year college
education has skyrocketed. So what does it take to win a middle-class life in America today? Earlier this year, Emily Hatsigeorgiou was handed the keys to her first home. This here is actually one of my favorite spaces for the light that is in the room. I’m really excited I am a little bit nervous to be completely
honest but it feels really good at 27 BINGHAM: At 27-years-old she’s already hit some of life’s big milestones. Not just homeownership but also marriage and children. But her path to where she is today, renovating a
historic home for herself and her two boys in downtown Howell, wasn’t exactly traditional. HATSIGEORGIOU: Immediately after high school I met my husband and we got married. About 10 months later we welcomed my firstborn George so I chose just to be around for my family and I went straight into retail. BINGHAM: After a second son and a failed attempt to run a restaurant together Emily and her husband ended their marriage. HATSIGEORGIOU: I moved back home with my parents. I started working retail again but because of the hours I wasn’t getting the time I wanted to spend with the boys so I actually got a job with a financial institution which
gave me a Monday through Friday schedule and it was fantastic and then they went
through a restructuring process and I get let go ultimately and I was really
upset I was living at home with my parents I had no degree. BINGHAM: With just her high school education Emily was stuck in low-paying jobs with
a middle-class life far out of reach. So what does it mean to be middle-class?
Economists will tell you it’s a household making between two thirds to
two times the national median income. The average person might just say, “It’s a
comfortable lifestyle.” *RADIO STATIC* *MUSIC* If you’re class in America right now you might argue that right now is the high point. Middle-class household income is higher
now than it’s ever been before plus consumer prices are a lot lower now
compared to back then and also we just have a lot of consumer goods that we
didn’t have back then cell phones big-screen TVs, air conditioning, cars
that last more than a hundred thousand miles, air travel is accessible to the
middle class now, so if you’re middle-class now is the time to be alive. BINGHAM: But the number of Americans in the middle class has been on a steady
decline for decades. In 1971, 61 percent of Americans were considered middle class. By 2016 that number was down to 52 percent. Michigan has pretty much followed the nationwide trend. We were once one of the most prosperous states
in the U.S. In 1959 Michigan had the 11th highest median family income in the
country. By 2017 it had dropped to 34th. DOUGLAS: We’ve gone from being say California down to Alabama if you will. So relatively speaking compared to the other 49 states we’ve lost ground and that’s almost completely due to the
decline of the Big Three auto companies. BINGHAM: The Big Three. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler were instrumental in building Michigan’s middle class. It started in
the early 1900s with Henry Ford’s game-changing $5 a day assembly line
jobs which paid workers significantly more than other factory jobs at that
time. A couple decades later auto workers won the right to unionize following the
Flint sit-down strike of 1936 and 37. Workers occupied a GM plant and forced
it to shut down for 44 straight days as a 20th century rolled on collective
bargaining allowed workers to band together for better wages workplace
rights and benefits, like health care and vacation time. Modern manufacturing
practices lower consumer prices and the end of the Great Depression and World
War II all meant life got pretty good for a lot of people. DOUGLAS: In terms of ease of
entering the middle class it was just a lot easier back then because you could
graduate from high school and get a job at the auto plant, put your 30 years in,
earn enough money for a nice middle-class lifestyle and retire with a pension. BINGHAM: The auto industry was booming and Detroit was the epicenter but its
ripple effects were felt across the state. DOUGLAS: Flint, Saginaw, Lansing even the western side of the state all had huge sources of
manufacturing employment. If you think about all the jobs that manufacturing
would support on top of just the actual manufacturing, the restaurants around the
plant, shops in the downtowns and so forth. It was really auto manufacturing
that caused Michigan to be so prosperous during that time period. In the 1960s the Big Three collectively were responsible for 85 percent of all cars sold in the
U.S. But everything changed in the 1970s. VOICE: Oil reserves are running out… VOICE: Paid off 20 guys yesterday… VOICE: On the verge of bankruptcy. Well, to see a machine doing your job that’s just… Either way it’s going to cost you jobs no matter which way you go… *inaudible* … what do you have to say? There’s not very much to look forward to here anymore. A major recession, fueled in part by the
Middle East oil embargo, lasted for most of the decade. Drivers bought more
fuel-efficient foreign cars while purchases of gas guzzling domestic
vehicles dropped off. For the first time the Big Three started to feel a pinch. At
the same time economic and social changes across the country led to a
significant productivity slowdown stagnating wages. – Also right at that time
period the divorce rate skyrockets with the advent of no-fault divorce. Out of
wedlock births increase over that time period which might have a role in terms
of financial difficulties for households. So you have economic changes that you
also have socio-economic cultural changes. It’s hard to disentangle the
effect of all those things happening. BINGHAM: That 1970 stagnation and average worker
pay is still being felt today despite gains in productivity and record profits
on Wall Street. Unions weakened and union membership declined reducing pressure to
raise wages. Then of course came the 2008 recession which brought with it the
bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler. The housing market famously crashed and auto
sales plummeted too. So, a lot fewer cars being produced, a lot fewer auto workers needed lots of people get laid off permanently as a result. BINGHAM: Dozens of auto plants have been shuttered and eventually demolished. The Big Three market share and the U.S.
has dropped from 85 percent to 44 percent, as Michigan lags behind the rest
of the nation’s record post recession recovery. The middle class is not done
but it’s harder than ever to find an easy route to that comfortable lifestyle. The middle class is here, it’s here to stay but it’s gonna be more difficult to
stay middle class or even grow if you don’t have education. BINGHAM: Higher education is
not exactly a level playing field. Adjusted for inflation the average cost
of a four-year degree at a public university in the U.S. has more than
doubled since the late 1980s but a traditional college education isn’t the
only way to get employable skills. There is still plenty of manufacturing
happening in the U.S. but automation has led to fewer jobs and those that are
left generally require higher skills. TUCKER: We see our Big Three investing hundreds of
millions of dollars in mobility at autonomous vehicles and rideshare
services because that’s really where we’re going. BINGHAM: Brandon Tucker is Dean of
Advanced Technologies and Public Service Careers at Washtenaw Community College.
His school is offering a first in the nation program to fill the skills gap in
auto manufacturing. TUCKER: Employers are fishing for talent their continually tapping us on the shoulder saying, “Please keep doing what you’re doing,” because we’re helping to build that talent pipeline. That’s where Emily Hatsigeorgiou found a road to a
financially sustainable life for herself and her two boys. After a heart-to-heart
talk with her dad she began to think seriously about a career in the auto industry. HATSIGEORGIOU: I asked him about working in automotive because he had been working
at General Motors for 30 years and he was very happy with his career. He thought
that it was a really great idea so that’s when I started to look into
programs that would set me up to go into the automotive industry. BINGHAM: With child care help from her parents and financial assistance in the form of grants and
scholarships Emily enrolled in a two-year automotive
service technology program at Washtenaw’s Advanced Transportation Center. HATSIGEORGIOU: So my first day of class was terrifying. I knew nothing about automotive. Plus
it’s a male-dominated program which is intimidating in itself to be the
minority in a group and my friend Matt he would joke with me, “You
know you could barely even hold an impact gun when you first got here and
now you’re pulling engines out by yourself.” Emily is a prime example of
someone who saw the dream and the promise of what education could do, came
here and sacrificed and before she even graduated had a job offer. BINGHAM: Emily landed an internship at the GM proving grounds in Milford which led to
a full-time job as a vehicle safety technician. She now earns three times
what she did in retail and works in the same building as her dad. HATSIGEORGIOU: When he entered the automotive industry degrees weren’t required and now you can’t even enter a
technician position without an associates so it is significantly different than
when he started. So now being able to see what his job is
and to be able to see him at work in passing and go in his office for a
few minutes to talk that’s a really incredible experience. BINGHAM: In addition to
restoring her home and raising two boys Emily is taking pre-engineering classes
at Washtenaw and plans to eventually enroll in Eastern Michigan University’s
mechanical engineering program. I definitely want to be in this house for
the next 10 to 15 years because I want my boys to graduate from Howell and I
can already envision prom pictures on the porch. So this is Joseph’s room. – I’m gonna put dinosaurs on his wall. – He’s going to put dinosaurs on his walls. BINGHAM: Modern middle-class workers like Emily hold jobs that can’t be automated in fields like manufacturing, health care,
education and the trades. DOUGLAS: The choices you make as a teenager really have a lot of weight in terms of how life shapes up down the road. So if you can graduate high school get a skill, get a full-time job, don’t have kids until you’re married
and then when you’re married stay married. A middle-class lifestyle
is essentially guaranteed. But of course real life is complicated. Education and childcare can be expensive and career paths aren’t always a straight line. HATSIGEORGIOU: Everybody has their own paths and there’s no timeline so don’t give up
because things do get better and things do turn around and just persevere. BINGHAM: Making it into that comfortable middle-class lifestyle is still possible it just
takes a little more strategy than it used to. The evolution of Michigan’s middle class has been complicated. In part because are just so many factors involved. To learn more about the history and future of the middle class and to find resources for
potential career paths and education available to Michigan residents, head
over to

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2 thoughts on “HOW WE GOT HERE: Winning a Seat in the Middle Class”

  1. pillow head says:

    Great news reporting and great video! Keep up the good work!

  2. private name says:

    These companies left america and it's workers behind. Mexico, canada and china replaced US workers

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