While cost of living rises, salaries are flat-lining
NOTE: This is the seventh in a series about helping the middle class deal with the struggles of today's economy.
Everything costs more, but we're not making more money. The middle class is said to be suffering its worst decade in modern history. While the presidential candidates contend they hold the middle class' best interests at heart, The Post and Courier is detailing the struggles many of us face, and offering you solutions for finding a job, getting out of debt, paying the bills, clothing the family and putting food on the dinner table. Go to postandcourier.com/stuck to read more stories in the series.
As a mental health care coordinator, Linda Whitfield spends her days helping people with psychiatric problems find housing, clothing, furniture — whatever they might need to obtain stability in life.
Whitfield is creative and crafty at finding ways to stretch a dollar. But with no pay raise in sight and the cost of food and everything else soaring, even this savvy shopper is having trouble making ends meet at home.
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Whitfield has been stuck at about the same wage for seven years, because of state government's budget woes. And at age 67, the Dorchester resident can't envision a retirement that doesn't include her working at least part time to cover her bills and pay off the student loan she took out years ago to get a master's degree.
“It does scare me knowing that I am getting to retirement and I still have that looming over my head,” she said. “I'll probably be the only person in the nursing home that has a student loan they are trying to pay off.”
Time was when professionals like Whitfield expected their station in life to improve by earning degrees, working hard and honing their skills in their chosen career.
That's part and parcel of the American dream — anyone has a shot at a better life if they are industrious enough.
But that belief has been rattled in recent years by the Great Recession and wages that have flat-lined for many folks while the cost of living has kept climbing.
The middle class has been caught in an economic vise, trying to pay 2012 prices with paychecks that haven't grown since the good times went bust — or even earlier.
Across the nation, family income was down 8 percent last year from what it was in 2000. And in South Carolina, the median income last year was just over $40,000.
That's the lowest wages have been in the Palmetto State since 1985, according inflation-adjusted figures from the U.S. census.
The effects are plain to see, from the Walterboro mother who took a second job just to keep her family afloat to the self-employed Charleston family who dropped their health insurance coverage because they couldn't afford the premiums anymore.
A recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute found that the past 10 years have been “a lost decade” for wage growth, characterized by increased disparities between top-earners and those stuck in the middle.
Even more sobering: From 1979 to 2007, wages for the top 1 percent of wage earners grew 156 percent, compared with 17 percent for the bottom 90 percent, according to the study, “State of Working America.”
“There was lots of income produced by our economy,” said EPI President Lawrence Mishel, who co-wrote the report. “It just didn't get to the vast majority of people. ... It works for the top 1 percent, but it's not working for the middle.”
In an August report, the Pew Research Center found that the middle class is shedding its numbers. In 2011, about half of the nation's adults were middle-income, down from 61 percent in 1971, the Pew study found.
And over the past decade, median middle-class income dropped 5 percent while total wealth for his group tumbled 28 percent, the report stated.
No longer does a cozy retirement seem like a sure thing. Many in the middle are just trying to hold on to what they have and keep their standard of living from sliding too far down.
These are people like 50-year-old Susan Cihlar of Charleston, whose family-owned air-conditioning business was a victim of the economic slump. Her husband went to work for someone else for less pay, and the couple sold off property to make sure their two daughters could go to college.
“We're making it, but there have been a lot of changes,” Cihlar said. Among other things, they don't eat out as much or spend as much on themselves.
They remain hopeful that the economy will bounce back and that salaries will get a boost down the road. “But I don't think that is going to happen for a really long time,” she said.
A variety of factors are driving the stagnation of salaries, from the globalization of the workforce and the decline of unions to dwindling labor protections and technological advances that reduce the need for workers, economists said.
Steve Blitz, chief economist at ITG Investment Research in New York, said the country's push into the global marketplace ushered in an era of cheaper goods and high profits for some.
“But it was inevitable, over time, that the cost of labor here had to fall relative to the rest of the world,” he said. “You get everything cheap, but the trade-off is lower wages.”
Not everyone is hurting, of course. Success stories can be found in some niche industries and professions with skills in demand.
Just ask Chris Baker, a 28-year-old Charlestonian who sells metal buildings for garages and other uses. Baker said he has largely avoided the pinch of the recession. “We've done really well.”
The same can be said of Brandon and Katherine Rushing, a local couple who work in the food and beverage industry. “Tourism is killing it in Charleston,” Brandon said. “Our income hasn't been hurt in the least.”
A lot of people, however, have been unable to find such jobs, or any jobs at all. South Carolina's unemployment rate fell to 9.1 percent in September, but that's still above the national average of 7.8 percent.
That means a lot of folks are competing for a limited pool of jobs offered by companies still skittish from the recession. That creates a buyer's market, and employees don't have a lot of leverage to push for a raise, particularly if employers are still struggling as well.
“We still don't see the recovery we'd like to see, and the pressure on wages is down right now,” College of Charleston economist Frank Hefner said. “You get higher wages when you have booming economies across the board, and we're just not seeing that.”
Just getting by
Tony Simmons gets to see how that theory plays out on a daily basis. The 30-year-old father from Charleston has worked for two years at a party-supply store, and he hasn't seen his paycheck budge an inch. But with jobs hard to find, he has to make due with the minimum wage, he said.
“It's very hard out here right now,” he said.
Whitfield, the mental health worker, can sympathize. Her husband, a retired shipyard worker, has had to go back to work part time as an administrative assistant. Even with their combined pay and his retirement income, “we're not living high on the hog,” she said.
Whitfield tries to save where she can, buying meat in bulk when on sale, frequenting stores where she can get fuel perks and senior discounts, shopping at Goodwill for clothing bargains and making the most out of leftovers.
She is concentrating on getting the mortgage paid off on her double-wide mobile home and taking care of any repairs and purchases while she is still working. She also always keeps in mind that others are worse off than she is, including her clients, who have to get by on a $698 disability subsidy each month.
Like most of her co-workers, she does the job because she loves it and the chance to help people, make a difference. “But if it wasn't for my husband's income, I wouldn't be able to work here,” said Whitfield, who makes less than $35,000 a year. “I couldn't afford it.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556