A trio of books on middle class woes

A wave of books about the dwindling prospects of America's middle class is hitting the shelves. Author Nan Mooney has written "(Not) Keeping up with Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class." For the book, she interviewed more than 100 social workers, product managers, college administrators, factory-equipment salesmen and other members of the middle class about their financial lives. Here's what they told her, according to a Q&A with Salon.com:

Most of them earned between $30,000 and $70,000 a year, yet despite good educations and respectable incomes, many still shouldered crushing debts and had serious doubts about their financial futures. They all aspire to basic comforts -- a place to live, reliable healthcare, education for themselves and their children -- but come across as a little bewildered by their seemingly perpetual state of financial insecurity. "As you get older, it becomes less okay to admit that you're struggling," one 42-year-old graphic designer tells Mooney. "People just assume that you must be doing okay. I've noticed that those who are still having trouble start to go underground about their financial lives."

Next up with his concerns about the American middle class is Peter Gosselin, an economics reporter with the Los Angeles Times (or, at least he's with the Times as of this current writing. The newspaper is planning to announce a huge layoff next week, which may have influenced Gosselin's mood as he wrote.)

Gosselin is the author of "High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families." The book was reviewed in the New York Times last week.

The author focuses on how much more we feel our financial lives are at risk, according to reviewer Noam Scheiber, who writes:

Americans have seen their financial situations grow far less stable over the last few decades, he reports ....

Scouring the data, Gosselin finds that the income of a middle-class family in the early 1970s typically rose or fell by no more than 17 percent in a given year; today, that range is plus or minus 26 percent. And it’s not just the middle class who’ve seen their incomes fluctuate wildly. The most affluent tenth of the country saw a slightly greater rise in volatility.

The cause of this increased turbulence, Gosselin says, is a changing labor market and a decades-long erosion of the corporate and social safety net. A generation ago, when unemployment relief was more generous, when companies provided liberal health and pension benefits and private insurers weren’t as stingy as they are today, a serious illness or the loss of a job usually wasn’t devastating. Now, such a setback is much more likely to bring economic ruin.

Finally, there is "Strapped" from Tamara Draut, who works at the Demos think tank. Her subtitle is "Why America's 20- and 3-Somethings Can't Get Ahead." That pretty much says it all. Draut, like Mooney, places a lot of blame on the rising cost of college and health insurance. Here's a good link if you want to read more.