Shifting Social Classes
Today, things are much different. As the country deals with one of the worst recessions in history and 13 million people face unemployment, social classes are shifting. Many Americans who once considered themselves middle class now feel closer to the bottom.
See how people really perceive social classes.
More than 30 million people are now relying on food stamps, and experts say the gap between the rich and the poor is widening.
Generally, Robert says the typical middle-class family earns about $50,000 a year. "Most economists assume that if you are earning, as a family, between $30,000 and $70,000 or $80,000, you're solidly middle class," he says. "Although, it does vary in different parts of the country."
Robert says getting a college education or having a respected profession can also improve a person's class.
After graduation, Haley got a job with an interior design firm in Chicago, but a few months into her career, she received an unexpected blow. Like millions of Americans before her, Haley was laid off.
Watch other college grads discuss education and debt.
"I was shocked," she says. "I thought I had done everything right."
Since then, Haley says she's dropped in social class and is now living at poverty level. "I never had to deal with being poor," she says. "It's humiliating."
"I saw people, men in business suits. I saw people who wanted to retire. I saw people with families," she says. "I would have to say, I was ignorant before I went to the unemployment office. I thought people [who] were unemployed were unmotivated, uneducated, and that's not what it is like right now in this world."
Now, Haley says she has a completely different opinion about what it means to be unemployed in America.
Wendy once owned two successful salons, but in February 2009, she closed the doors for good. These days, she does hair out of her home to pay the bills. The recession also forced her husband, Martin, to close his housing business.
With bills piling up, Wendy and Martin say they can no longer afford to treat their friends to dinner or host lavish parties. Since they dropped to a lower social class, Wendy says the phone doesn't ring as often. "It made me feel so sad just to think that people I would talk to or associate with on a daily basis weren't my friend anymore," she says. "They know the well is dry."
"A lot of Americans who were in the middle class never thought they would suddenly lose their middle-class status and be poor," he says. "It's an eye-opener, and it is a shock."
Robert reminds Wendy and Martin that there are millions of other couples in their situation and this is a temporary setback for many.
"I hope that whatever you felt about your own failure or your own inadequacy, you understand it's not you. You did not do anything wrong," he says. "The economy is doing it to an awful lot of people."
Then, in December 2008, his celebrated career came to a sudden end. Ernie was fired, and his six-digit salary was gone in an instant. When the severance package he was promised fell through, Ernie and his wife, Susan, found themselves facing a financial crisis.
Fortunately, Ernie had been studying veterinary care and got a job at an animal hospital. The bad news? He earns 80 percent less than he used to. "[We're] living like we used to live when we were first married 36 years ago," he says. "[We] get a cheap six-pack of beer and invite friends over to play cards."
One afternoon, Susan says she went to the grocery store with reusable bags and filled them with food.
"I packed all my groceries up and wrote my check and [the clerk] said, 'Sorry, your check's been declined,'" she says. "And I said, 'Oh, no way. There's no way.'"
Susan assumed there had been a mistake and went to a nearby store to do her shopping. After filling another cart, she says she was humiliated for the second time when her check was declined once again. "Our final paycheck had run out, and we didn't realize it," Ernie says. "So as I said, we are now walking the walk of a lot of people in this country."
The biggest lesson? You can be just as happy with less money.
"My favorite saying is, 'You make plans in life, and God laughs.' And he's having a good laugh right now—hopefully with us, not at us," Ernie says. "I think that laughter will be our strength in the future and our wisdom to maybe not be as extended as we were … and to live a simpler and much more frugal life."
"I had a wonderful career as a broadcaster," he says. "But I always knew the broadcasting thing would come to an end. Hopefully it was going to be on my terms in a couple of years, but it [wasn't]."
After one week as a veterinary technician, Ernie says he's finally found his true calling. "It's a passion; it's not a job," he says. "I love it."
Don't let their fancy cars and designer clothes fool you. Jamie says the recession continues to send shock waves through the upper class.
"I think there's been an assumption among the rich for the last 25, 30 years that fortunes were only going to grow because that's what's been happening," he says. "This recent crisis really terrified a number of rich people, and they started to think, 'Oh my God, maybe it's not inevitable that I'm going to become richer and richer.'"
Over the years, Nick has photographed charity galas and fancy parties in communities like Newport and Palm Beach. Since the stock market began to plummet, Nick says he's noticed that some people are scaling back. "[Events] aren't nearly as full as they used to be," he says. "When so many people are having a tough time right now, to flaunt how much money you have is just bad taste."
Serena Merriman, one of Manhattan's "it" girls, says the recession is also affecting fashion. "I think there's been a trend to mix high and low fashion," she says. "I think people are embarrassed to be wearing really expensive clothes or to be carrying handbags with big logos on them."
"They're looking around, and they're saying: 'Wow, we still have a lot of money. Most people don't have any money to invest. Prices of everything are going down. Real estate is cheaper. Stocks are cheaper. Let's make some long-term investments that are going to keep our families rich for several generations into the future,'" Jamie says.
At one point, Cheryl and her husband were bringing home a combined income of $95,000, but then she lost her job. Without her paycheck coming in, Cheryl's family slid into a downward spiral. Now, she says they're struggling to put food on the table and pay the mortgage on their home.
"Never in a million years did I think that we would be standing in the space that we're in, not having any money in the bank and having no savings," she says. "I feel like we are about to end up on the street."
Terry spent most of her life living in a low-income neighborhood, but then a voucher from a federal housing program lifted her out of poverty and into a middle-class community. "The neighborhood that I walk through is like a whole different planet," she says. "I like the serenity I have out here…the peace of mind."
With steady work as a deli clerk at a nearby grocery store, Terry is able to pay her bills and enjoy simple luxuries like a walk-in closet. "I don't hear car sirens and bickering and talking under my window all night long," she says. "I sit on my balcony and listen to the birds."
For years, Robert says people have filled their homes with stuff to emulate the upper class, and in doing so, they dug themselves deep into debt. While the situation may look bleak now, Robert says there's a silver lining.
"The economy will get better. I can't tell you exactly when it's going to happen—probably next year," he says. "But I hope we don't lose sight of what we've learned in terms of what really matters and what really counts."
More reflections on social class
Discover ways to live with less.