Keeping It Together - Barely

Four families in Joliet, Ill., struggle to hang onto a middle-class lifestyle that is proving increasingly elusive to them and many Americans.

AS the morning sun glints off the windshield of his rusty brown van, Don Harris crosses the hump of a steel drawbridge on the Des Plaines River into Joliet, Ill., with a load of magazines he delivers for $72 each week.

The job helps Mr. Harris soothe a stung pride. After 26 years with one company, he recently lost a $29,000 position as a grocery-store manager and had to resort to food stamps.

Downtown in a plain brick office building, Bill Wheeler spends the morning slowly tapping the keys of a computer at a training center for idle workers. The burly truck-driver-turned-car salesman is scrambling to retool and hold onto a white-collar lifestyle he believes is fast slipping from his grasp.

''I've had to work harder and longer to make the same amount of money,'' Mr. Wheeler says during a break. ''I'm no further ahead than I was 10 years ago.''

In Joliet and across Main Street America, many members of the middle class share Wheeler's frustration. Like Harris, Wheeler grew up during the postwar boom years of 1947 to 1973, when the inflation-adjusted median income of families doubled, the wage gap between rich and poor narrowed, and the middle class grew.

Today, those trends have reversed. The American middle class, broadly defined as households with after-tax incomes of $25,000 to $75,000, has shrunk from 52.7 percent to 47.1 percent since 1973, according to the US Census Bureau. Income inequality is at a 50-year high; the incomes of the richest fifth of Americans grew 24 percent from 1973 to 1993, while those of the poorest fifth fell 15 percent, census data show.

America's pinched middle class is mirrored in many ways in the typical Midwestern town of Joliet. White picket fences hem well-trimmed lawns and painted advertisements for union-made goods fade on brick walls. Chicago-bound freight trains rumble through town before disappearing into fields of corn. River barges float by on lazy journeys between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.

Joliet's median household income is just over $30,000, the level at which US household income has stagnated since 1975, census data show.

Some analysts argue that numerous middle-class Americans are faring well. They point to better housing, inexpensive consumer goods, and significant increases in those who finish four years of college.

But in many cases, the gains have been uneven as Americans have struggled to adapt to changing circumstances. Like many communities, Joliet has seen a wrenching decline in the number of traditional, full-benefit manufacturing jobs. Layoffs by the city's manufacturers such as Caterpillar Inc., oil refineries, and steel firms contributed to double-digit unemployment and a 25 percent drop in manufacturing employees between 1982 and 1987, census figures show. Unemployment is about 7 percent, nearly two points above the US rate.

The corporate downsizing that has slashed millions of jobs nationwide has also put many of Joliet's middle managers out of work, local employment agencies say. Harris, one of several managers laid off by Jewel Food Stores, sees high costs from the cutbacks. ''Corporations are turning their backs on key people,'' he says.

Many of Joliet's uprooted workers have found service jobs in retail outlets and shopping malls. The riverboat-gambling industry steamed into town in 1992. Now it is the city's largest employer by far, with 4,000 workers.

But a significant number of the new jobs are temporary or part-time and offer less compensation and security. Americans overall have grown less satisfied with their pay, hours, benefits, chances for promotion, and job security, according to a poll last year by the New York firm Roper Starch Worldwide.

Joliet residents echo the belief of the majority of US citizens - 2 out of 3, according to a Harris Poll this year - that the American dream of equal opportunity and social mobility is more elusive. Three out of 4 Americans say the dream will be harder to achieve in the coming decade.

''If I didn't really struggle I would probably get squeezed down into the lower class,'' says Wheeler. ''It's getting to the point where I believe there won't be any more middle class - only menial labor and the upper class.''

Still, middle-class Americans are far from defeated. In Joliet, the stories of Bill Wheeler, Don Harris, and others show how many are coping with economic adversity by relying more on themselves. They are pursuing job training and education. They are making the best of living standards that, while comfortable, fall below their expectations. And despite the pessimism indicated by polls, they are confident that their children, with the right education, will succeed.

A question of loyalty

Over a lunch of fried chicken and soda at a Joliet fast-food restaurant, Harris says the troubles of America's middle class boil down to betrayed loyalty in the workplace.

Raised in a black working-class family on Chicago's West Side, Harris joined Jewel as a high school graduate in 1969. For the next 26 years, he punched the clock and earned praise from customers. In June, he was stunned when Jewel dismissed him, he says, because of a prolonged medical absence after he was injured moving a heavy load.

''I felt betrayed by the way they did it. I didn't want to hurt my arm or have to stay home,'' Harris says. His union is disputing Jewel's action. Jewel declined to comment on why it let Harris go.

Harris's sentiments are shared by millions of middle-class Americans who doubt their employers' commitment to them. About half of Americans say they feel a great deal of loyalty to their job, but only a third think their employers are loyal to them, according to the Roper Starch poll.

Economic insecurity is acute among the slowly growing black middle class. Blacks tend to lose more than whites in economic downturns; they hold proportionately more blue-collar and low-wage jobs, are paid less at equal levels of educational attainment, and experience higher unemployment.

Last April, Harris's paycheck stopped because of his extended leave. With mounting bills and an empty refrigerator, he swallowed hard and for the first time headed for a state welfare office. He now lives on unemployment compensation and odd jobs, and attends a county-run job-training program. He hopes his union will succeed in pushing Jewel to rehire him. ''I'm at an age now where I don't think I can go much higher than Jewel,'' says Harris.

Unlike Harris, Joliet security guard Scott Mosley has full-time work. Mosely's low-paying service job, however, has failed to prevent a slide out of the middle class.

After an overnight shift at Harrah's riverboat casino, Mosely returns home to a gang-ridden neighborhood on the river's east side. The high school dropout tries to sleep. But he is kept awake by his three young sons, whose playful shouts are a constant reminder of the limits of his $18,000 yearly wage.

Early last year, Mosely lost his job as a state prison guard after he took an unauthorized leave when his third son was born. Months passed without steady work. Finally, he landed the Harrah's job at 20 percent less pay. Mosely's family, like 1 of 6 households in Joliet, now hovers above the poverty line.

No holidays and late hours have driven many workers away from the casinos. ''When the casinos first came in, a lot of people ran over there because they thought it sounded like a fun job, but a lot have since left,'' says Vicki Speckman, manager of a Joliet employment agency.

Mosely shrugs off the stress with a smile. He hopes for a more stable, better-compensated job with the Joliet police. His unemployed wife, Tonya, dreams of buying a house in a safe neighborhood. For now, though, the couple are glad just to feed their sons and give them the unexpected luxury of a stay-at-home mom.

Linda Aguilar, a divorced mother who no longer has that luxury, is determined to juggle family and work without living ''paycheck to paycheck.'' Ms. Aguilar begins each day by hustling her young son, Juan, out the door of their modest brick home to catch his 7:10 school bus. Then she drops off her daughter, Carisa, at school and goes to work.

So far, Aguilar is succeeding. Her $36,000 salary at Joliet Junior College puts her household squarely in the middle of America's middle class. Still, her job depends on a tentative annual grant. While her husband pays child support, Aguilar works overtime to avoid slipping economically.

Women are often hit hard by divorce because they earn less on average than men do and often retain primary custody of children. Women surveyed by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, for example, experienced a 30 to 50 percent decline in living standards after divorce.

After her divorce in 1988, Aguilar had to shift from part- to full-time work and send her children to day care. She cut spending, forgoing vacations, using worn furniture, and pinching pennies for a new car.

''I can't stand the pressure of worrying every day whether I have enough to write a check at the grocery store,'' she says.

Looking for a payoff

In Joliet and elsewhere, economic unease coincides with new political tensions as middle-class Americans are concerned that their work ethic is no longer paying off.

Hard work is not enough to get ahead, many believe. ''There is a simmering resentment that people who are virtuous are struggling, and those looking for windfalls are prospering,'' says Washington-based polling expert Stanley Greenberg.

Meanwhile, Americans increasingly resent what they view as abuses of welfare by the poor, according to an October report by the Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, New York research firm. ''Welfare recipients symbolize [to many] the decline of the work ethic and breakdown of the family,'' says Isabell Sawhill of the Urban Institute in Washington.

Few citizens are looking to the government to solve these problems or improve their economic standing, polls show.

''I don't have a high level of trust in government,'' says Aguilar. A registered Republican, she rarely votes a straight party ticket.

Traditional sources of support are no longer reliable pillars for many. ''Corporations seem less loyal, the government is ineffectual, the unions are weaker, schools seem to be crumbling - all the collective institutions are leaving people more atomized and alone,'' says Mr. Greenberg. ''There is the sense of a broken contract.''

As a result, Americans are reaching inward for help, to themselves and their immediate families. Although they long for community, most Americans believe that self-reliance is the key to solving their own and the nation's problems, polls show.

''Today, you have to be more self-reliant,'' says Wheeler. ''There are fewer jobs and you have to have training that is valuable.''

Studying a computer screen at the Joliet Dislocated Worker Assistance Center, Wheeler is one of millions of blue-collar workers seeking to upgrade their skills and maintain their living standards.

Wheeler worked as a union truck driver, laborer, repairman, and cook before making the leap 10 years ago to a high-pressure, $40,000 a year white-collar job as a car salesman. Recently fired after his dealership changed hands, he is now back at square 1, training to be a computer repairman. ''Computers - that's the way the world is going,'' he says confidently.

For Wheeler and others in Joliet, self-reliance fuels a hope that with a good education their children will do well. ''Education is a more reliable ticket to the middle class now than what one's parents had or did,'' Aguilar says. ''Carisa and Juan need to be self-regulated learners.''

Indeed, a recent study showed that college education has become more decisive in determining whether men under age 30 achieved middle-class incomes. College graduates do earn significantly higher hourly wages than high school graduates, and the gap is widening. Even among the college educated, top students earn far more on average than those at the bottom of their class.

In the late afternoon, Harris picks up his three-year-old daughter, Jordan Samantha, at preschool. He beams as the youngster recites favorite movie characters. Harris has already opened a savings account for her college tuition. ''I want to see her go to college,'' he says, ''and learn to fend for herself.''

* Last of two parts. Part one ran last week.

CHANGING TIMES: Joliet, Ill., mirrors the shift in America's middle class. Fading ads for union-made goods hark back to a era when traditional manufacturing jobs were plentiful in this solidly middle-class town.

FAMILY PORTRAIT: The Moselys at home. Scott Mosely struggles to support his three children and wife on an $18,000-a-year security-guard salary.

ON THE JOB: Linda Aguilar, with daughter, Carisa, in her office at Joliet Junior College. She sees education as key to Carisa's future.

RETOOLING: Bill Wheeler, above, gets computer training at a center for idle workers in downtown Joliet. Don Harris, left, is looking for work. He was laid off after 26 years with the same company.

'Education is a more reliable ticket to the middle class now than what one's parents had or did.'

- Linda Aguilar

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