The Vanishing Middle-Class Job
As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads
More U.S. Families Struggle to Stay on Track
By Griff Witte: September 20, 2004
Scott Clark knows how to plate a circuit board for a submarine.
He knows which chemicals, when mixed, will keep a cell phone ringing
and which will explode. He knows how to make his little piece of a
factory churn hour after hour, day after day.
But right now, as his van hurtles toward the misty silhouette of
the Blue Ridge Mountains, the woods rising darkly on either side and
Richmond receding behind him, all he needs to know is how to stay awake
and avoid the deer.
So he guides his van along the center of the highway, one set of
wheels in the right lane and the other in the left. "Gives me a chance
if a deer runs in from either direction," he explains. "And at night,
this is my road."
It's his road because, at 3:43 a.m. on a Wednesday, no one else
wants it. Clark is nearly two hours into a workday that won't end for
another 13, delivering interoffice mail around the state for four
companies -- none of which offers him health care, vacation, a pension
or even a promise that today's job will be there tomorrow. His
meticulously laid plans to retire by his mid-fifties are dead. At 51,
he's left with only a vague hope of getting off the road sometime in
the next 20 years.
Until three years ago, Clark lived a fairly typical American
life -- high school, marriage, house in the suburbs, three kids and
steady work at the local circuit-board factory for a quarter-century.
Then in 2001 the plant closed, taking his $17-an-hour job with it, and
Clark found himself among a segment of workers who have learned the
middle of the road is more dangerous than it used to be. If they want
to keep their piece of the American dream, they're going to have to
Figuring out what the future holds for workers in his
predicament -- and those who are about to be -- is key to understanding
a historic shift in the U.S. workforce, a shift that has been changing
the rules for a crucial part of the middle class.
This transformation is no longer just about factory workers,
whose ranks have declined by 5 million in the past 25 years as
manufacturing moved to countries with cheaper labor. All kinds of jobs
that pay in the middle range -- Clark's $17 an hour, or about $35,000 a
year, was smack in the center -- are vanishing, including computer-code
crunchers, produce managers, call-center operators, travel agents and
The jobs have had one thing in common: For people with a high
school diploma and perhaps a bit of college, they can be a ticket to a
modest home, health insurance, decent retirement and maybe some savings
for the kids' tuition. Such jobs were a big reason America's middle
class flourished in the second half of the 20th century.
Now what those jobs share is vulnerability. The people who fill
them have become replaceable by machines, workers overseas or temporary
employees at home who lack benefits. And when they are replaced, many
don't know where to turn.
"We don't know what the next big thing will be. When the
manufacturing jobs were going away, we could tell people to look for
tech jobs. But now the tech jobs are moving away, too," said Lori G.
Kletzer, an economics professor at the University of California at
"What's the comparative advantage that America retains? We don't have
the answer to that. It gives us a very insecure feeling."
The government doesn't specifically track how many jobs like
Clark's have gone away. But other statistics more than hint at the
scope of the change. For example, there are now about as many
temporary, on-call or contract workers in the United States as there
are members of labor unions. Another sign: Of the 2.7 million jobs lost
during and after the recession in 2001, the vast majority have been
restructured out of existence, according to a study by the Federal
Reserve Bank of New York.
Each layoff or shutdown has its own immediate cause, but nearly
all ultimately can be traced to two powerful forces that reinforce each
other: global competition and rapid advances in technology.
Economists and politicians -- including the presidential
candidates -- are locked in a vigorous debate about the job losses. Is
this just another rocky stretch of the U.S. economy that, if left
alone, will foster new industries generating millions of
as-yet-unimagined jobs, as it has during other times of upheaval? Or is
the workforce hollowing out permanently, with those in the middle
forced to slide down to low-paying jobs without benefits if they can't
get the education, credentials and experience to climb up to the
Over the next several months, The Washington Post, in an
occasional series of articles, will explore the vast changes facing
middle-income workers and the consequences for businesses and society.
Some of the consequences are already evident: The ranks of the
uninsured, the bankrupt and the long-term unemployed have all crept up
the income scale, proving those problems aren't limited to the poor.
Meanwhile, income inequality has grown. In 2001, the top 20 percent of
households for the first time raked in more than half of all income,
while the share earned by those in the middle was the lowest in nearly
As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads
Within the middle class, there has been a widening divide
between those in its upper reaches whose jobs provide the trappings of
the good life, and those in the lower rungs whose economic fortunes are
The growing income gap corresponds to a long-term restructuring
of the workforce that has carved out jobs from the center. In 1969, two
categories of jobs -- blue-collar and administrative support --
together accounted for 56 percent of U.S. workers, according to an
analysis by economists Frank Levy of MIT and Richard J. Murnane of
Harvard. Thirty years later the share was just 39 percent.
Jobs at the low and high ends have replaced those in the middle
-- the ranks of janitors and fast-food workers have expanded, but so
have those of lawyers and doctors. The problem is, jobs at the low end
don't support a middle-class life. And many at the high end require
special skills and advanced degrees. "However you define the middle
class, it's a lot harder now for high school graduates to be in it,"
College graduates aren't immune, either. In places like
Richmond, the overall health of the economy masks layoffs that have
snared not only blue-collar workers like Clark, but also thousands of
office workers at companies like credit card giant Capital One
Financial Corp. and high-tech retailer Circuit City Stores Inc. Those
cutbacks have educated even those with bachelor's degrees in the new
ways of a volatile economy.
A University of California at Berkeley study last year found
that as many as 14 million jobs are vulnerable to being sent overseas.
Many economists, though, say offshoring is more opportunity than threat
because it allows companies to make and sell goods for less, and offer
even better jobs than those that are lost. "Offshoring can't explain
job loss. It can only explain job switch," said David R. Henderson, a
Hoover Institution economist.
Henderson says the middle class is thriving, and by many
measures, he's right. As a group they're earning more money than they
have before, and their ranks have swollen with members who can afford
the DVDs, SUVs and MP3s now seen by many families as part of the
essential backdrop to modern life. Whereas Census numbers show the
median household earned $33,338 in 1967 when adjusted for inflation,
that number was up by $10,000 in 2003.
But when compared with those at the top, the middle has lost
much ground. And many in the middle have dropped well behind their
The gaps are likely to widen, according to Robert H. Frank, a
Cornell economist. He said that as more people worldwide become
available to do routine work for less money and as computers take on
increasingly complex functions, the demand for those Americans whose
skills are easily duplicated could drop. "The new equilibrium," Frank
said, "may be a little meaner and more unpleasant than it was before."
Believing in Ma Bell
In the Washington area, the federal government and its
contractors have cushioned the impact of the change in the workforce.
But you don't have to travel far for evidence of the shift: Just two
hours south on I-95, to Richmond.
From a distance, like many parts of the United States, Richmond
looks like a place where the middle class should thrive. As its economy
evolved over the past century from agriculture to manufacturing to
services and, finally, to technology, it hung on to some aspects of
each phase. That diversity keeps the jobless rate below the
national average. Paychecks for professionals are growing. Major
corporations such as Philip Morris USA are adding staff. A biotech park
has taken root in downtown. Two new malls recently opened in the
And yet, for some who lack the right skills to match employers'
demands, Richmond has less to offer than it used to.
"I think we're tending not to see any growth in the middle,"
said Michael Pratt, a Virginia Commonwealth University economics
professor, "but I don't know anywhere in America where you are."
It wasn't always that way.
When Fred Agostino moved to suburban Richmond to head the
Henrico County Economic Development Authority in the mid-1980s,
employers wanted semi-skilled workers they could train for half a day
and hire for life at a decent wage with benefits. Now companies looking
to relocate to Richmond just want to know what percentage of the local
population has a PhD. "They have to have educated, skilled, world-class
people," Agostino said.
Meanwhile, the lifetime jobs were cut short.
As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads
The Viasystems Inc. circuit board factory was once known as
"Richmond Works," and it provided good pay for people who didn't get
past high school -- like Scott Clark. He was also among the 2,350
people who lost their jobs in 2001, when the plant shut for good.
Today Clark is a driver-for-hire, willing to work virtually any
schedule, and drive any route for less than anyone else. His old
factory job was outsourced to workers in China, Canada or Mexico. But
now he benefits from outsourcing, doing work that once might have been
someone else's full-time job with benefits. A former proud union man,
he has become part of the steady exodus from the labor movement, which
now represents just under 13 percent of the workforce. Instead, he's
part of another nearly 13 percent of the workforce that has grown, not
shrunk -- those who do jobs that are temporary, contract or on-call.
At least the work's not going anywhere. A real person in
America, he reasons, has to drive American roads to get things from one
place to another. There's security in that.
Clark used to feel the same security about work at the factory.
When he started there in the mid-1970s, it was a new Western Electric
plant, part of the Ma Bell family. When managers called him for an
interview and he got the job, he could hardly believe it: "I said,
'It's funny you called me. My girlfriend's got college, and you ain't
called her.' They said, 'What kind of college?' I said, 'She's taking
biology and chemistry and all that stuff.' Before I got home, they
called her and I had to turn around and bring her back up."
His girlfriend, Kathy, dropped out of school immediately. They
started work the same day in 1976, making less than $10 an hour between
them. Marriage followed.
Clark, a big, profane man, makes his way through Virginia
yelling at other drivers, yelling at talk radio, and, occasionally,
singing along to a sweet, sad bluegrass tune.
He doesn't have much patience for politicians. When Sen. John F.
Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic presidential nominee, comes on the radio
to talk about the economy, proclaiming, "I believe in building up our
great middle class," Clark sneers, "Yeah, right." When President Bush's
voice echoes through the cab a little later, Clark dubs him "a liar."
Clark has few nice things to say about corporations, either, but
he concedes that the factory -- for most of his years there -- was run
pretty well. He enjoyed the work, putting copper plating on circuit
boards that would power phones, computers and even a few submarines for
the Navy. Working in the chemical division was a dirty job. But because
it was dirty, managers stayed away. Amidst the fumes, working long into
the night on the second shift, the workers forged deep friendships.
Clark and three buddies played the lottery religiously, with a vow that
if one hit the jackpot, they would split the winnings and all retire on
"It was a real close-knit group of people," said Kathy Clark,
who also worked the second shift for years. "We grew up there. We had
our families there."
'You Could Work for Nothing'
But in 1996, the plant was sold by Lucent Technologies Inc.,
which had inherited it from AT&T Corp. Although the union made a
bid, the victor was a start-up called Viasystems.
Many of the workers, Scott Clark included, had a feeling Viasystems was
not invested in the plant for the long term. The reality was hard to
ignore: By 2001, few companies still made circuit boards in the United
States. They could earn a bigger profit producing them where business
costs were lower, and where the workers would not demand overtime or
sick leave. Scott Clark was not surprised on the day Viasystems
announced the factory would shut down.
"They point-blank told us. . . . 'You could work for nothing and we
would still close this plant,' " Kathy Clark said.
On the plant's final day, the workers were told to throw their
ID passes and beepers into a box in the auditorium. Scott Clark
wouldn't do it. Instead he broke into a meeting of managers, and placed
his pass on the table. "When I walked into this plant, they handed me
that pass," he told them. "They were proud to give it to me, and I was
proud to take it." Now he was giving it back. He turned, and left the
plant for the last time.
A handful of employees stayed behind to remove the machines so
they could either be shipped overseas or sold for scrap. In the end,
Richmond Works was just a shell. The building still sits vacant off the
side of Interstate 64 just outside Richmond, a 700,000-square-foot tan
tombstone in a weedy field.
Kathy Clark was unemployed for a year after the plant closed.
Scott Clark lost time to training as he began his second career on the
road. With their savings all but evaporated, the Clarks have spent the
past two years starting over.
As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads
Working 15-hour days, Scott Clark has been pulling in good
money. He won't say exactly how much for fear that competitors will
undercut him, but in the Richmond area, he said, a courier can make
$800 a week for doing routes less time-consuming than his. That's more
than his base pay at the factory, though his new job lacks any benefits
and he has to pay for the van and the gas. Kathy Clark, meanwhile, got
a full-time job this summer after two years of temp work. But they
still have a lot of ground to make up. Had the plant stayed open, they
would have been ready for retirement in just a few more years. Now, "I
feel like I'm 18 years old again," said Kathy Clark, as she sat in a
rocking chair in her living room, strands of light gray overtaking the
dark brown of her short hair.
The Clarks know they have it better than many of their friends
from the plant. They have frequent, impromptu reunions at Wal-Mart,
where the talk inevitably turns to who has found work and who hasn't.
Raffael Toskes Sr. has, but only for $11 an hour. He rides
around each day in an armored car, a gun strapped to his side. "I
consider myself a middle-class person," said Toskes, who made $17 an
hour at the plant. "But right now, I'm probably a lower-middle-class
Lawrence Provo has given up on trying to find a job. He was out
of work for nearly two years after the plant closed. "That was probably
the worst time in the world to become unemployed. Everybody was
downsizing. Everybody was laying off," he said.
Provo and his wife cut back on expenses and sold their car,
furniture and jewelry. They even sold their home, and moved in with
Provo's mother-in-law. But it was not enough. They had come to rely on
his factory wage, and now their debts spiraled into the tens of
thousands. They declared bankruptcy, joining a record 1.6 million who
filed last year.
Provo finally got a job through a temp agency for $8.50 an hour,
less than $18,000 a year and a little more than a third of his pay at
Viasystems. He was just getting his life back together when, in
November last year, his heart failed him. "My doctor told me, 'You've
got a choice: You can work or you can live,' " he said.
Robert Boyer retrained in computers after the plant closed. But
tech companies told him they wanted five years' experience, not a
certificate from a six-month course. So he works for $11.50 an hour at
Home Depot, using the wisdom of four decades as plant electrician to
help customers pick light bulbs for their remodeled kitchens.
Boyer turns angry at any suggestion that the jobs picture is not
that bad. "When these guys get on the boob tube and say there's jobs
out there, you just gotta go out there and get them, it makes me want
to go out there and grab them by the throat and say, 'Where? Where are
the jobs at?' "
Slipping Away at Circuit City
Ask Richmond's leaders, and they'll say the jobs are in
infotech, biotech, nanotech and other kinds of tech yet to be
conceived. "People have the impression that Richmond is a good-old-boy
town. And we do have some old money here. But that money is going to
build the new economy," said Robert J. Stolle, executive director of
the Greater Richmond Technology Council. "Tech is the backbone of the
One home-grown company seems to capture in its name Richmond's
most deeply held ambitions: Circuit City. Born in 1949 to sell
television sets to the masses, its existence attests to the enduring
strength of the middle class. And all those sales of computers and
video games have created a lot of jobs. With a local staff of 3,072,
the chain is one of the Richmond area's largest employers.
But the work has a tendency to disappear. In the eight years
after he moved to Richmond to take an offer at Circuit City, Chuck
Moore lost his job in that company three times, proving that a white
collar and a college degree are no protection from the forces that have
shifted the ground under blue-collar workers like Clark.
At 35, Moore spent the first nine months of 2004 desperate for a
job as he watched his grip on the middle class slipping away. His story
complicates the idea that to be comfortable in America today, all you
need is a little more education.
Moore's roots are solidly blue-collar: His father worked as an
electrician for the same company for 40 years. His stepfather drove a
truck. His brother went to work at the Georgia Pacific plant. His
mother still manages the local Shoney's. No one in his family had ever
graduated from college.
For nine years after his high school graduation, he and his
wife, Terry, worked full time to pay for Chuck to complete his degree
at the Savannah College of Art and Design. With a knack for electronics
and an artistic eye, he wanted to animate movies or video games. "I
thought that walking out that door with that degree in my hand, I
wouldn't have to look. I would have people coming to me," Moore said.
But while Moore was in school -- designing animation by day,
manning a hotel desk by night -- the technology had continued to
improve and so had employers' capacity to hire artists anywhere on
earth. A bachelor's degree might have been enough before; now you
needed a master's or even a doctorate.
As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads
Moore started looking for computer jobs instead. He and Terry
both had luck at Circuit City.
Moore's first job disappeared when the company closed a tech
support center and began moving its call center operations to India.
His second job -- designing ads for the recruitment division --
evaporated when the tech bubble burst. His last job there ended in
January when the database he built to manage marketing projects worked
so well that the company no longer needed the help of a human.
Until this past weekend, his job search had gone like this: 320
résumés sent out, six calls back. Three interviews. No
offers. At first, he had put his old salary on his
résumé: $40,000. Later he switched to, "negotiable."
"I've already been willing to go down 10 [thousand dollars]. And
if it goes much longer, I might have to go down 15. For a guy with a
bachelor's degree to take $25,000, I might as well be working at
McDonald's," Moore said in August. "There's something not right about
Yet on Saturday, when an animal hospital offered him work as a
veterinary assistant -- for half what he had been making in his old job
and no benefits -- he accepted immediately. He starts today, cleaning
out kennels and, he hopes, learning how to use the X-ray machines or
work in the lab so he can add to his repertoire of skills.
Moore has thought of going back for his master's degree. But
that's hardly an option when he has a 3-year-old son, not to mention a
mortgage and student loans.
Instead, to help make ends meet, he's been teaching computer
basics at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, where his students
can identify with their teacher's plight. One is a 20-year Army veteran
who found that the best he could do without college was become a
salesman at Lowe's, the home-improvement store. He was taking Moore's
class so he could go to a four-year college in the fall.
"The job market for people like me is not that good," said the
man, Albert DiCicco. "Maybe it is for people with bachelor's degrees."
Lately, DiCicco's predicament has been on the mind of Federal
Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
In June, Greenspan warned that a shortage of highly skilled
workers and a surplus of those with fewer skills has meant wages for
the lower half of the income scale have remained stagnant, while the
top quarter of earners sprints away. Greenspan said the skills mismatch
"can and must be addressed, because I think that it's creating an
increasing concentration of incomes in this country and, for a
democratic society, that is not a very desirable thing to allow to
But it already has happened. The gap between the wages of a
30-year-old male high school graduate and a 30-year-old male college
graduate was 17 percent as of 1979, according to analysis by Harvard's
Murnane and MIT's Levy in their book, "The New Division of Labor." Now
it tops 50 percent, with an even larger differential for women. Real
wages for both high school graduates and high school dropouts have
actually fallen since the 1970s. Meanwhile, wages for college graduates
-- who make up only about a quarter of the adult population -- have
The trend seems poised to continue. The list of the 30 jobs the
Labor Department predicts will grow the most through 2012 includes
high-paying positions such as postsecondary teachers, software
engineers and management analysts. But nearly all require a college
degree. There are also plenty of jobs that demand no college --
including retail sales and security guard -- but they pay a low wage.
And yet, as Moore's situation shows, a college diploma offers a
porous shield when demand for a certain skill evaporates. College
graduates have, in recent years, become an increasingly large
percentage of the long-term unemployed. When they find new work, their
salary cuts have been especially deep.
The optimists among economists -- and there are many -- point to
trends that could help mitigate the pain of job losses and lead to
future growth. One is the coming mass retirement of baby boomers, which
could leave plenty of openings for those trying to break into the
workforce. Economists tend to believe, too, that trade and technology
will ultimately create new efficiencies that produce far more jobs than
they destroy and leave everyone, on average, better off.
A Tough Climb
Scott Clark isn't sure if he will emerge better off. Spending
day and night in the cab of a van was not exactly how he planned to
live out his fifties and sixties, but he'll get by. He's even managed
to save enough money to begin cutting his hours from 15 down to 11.
It's the end of the day now and as Clark battles the Richmond
evening rush hour, his thoughts are turning to home. He's already
fulfilled his part of the American dream, doing better than his parents
did. "Everybody tells me I'm low class," Clark says, chuckling faintly.
"But we're middle class. We're definitely middle class."
Yet his kids -- his son is 26 and his twin daughters are 21 --
still live at home because they can't afford places of their own. None
of them went to college, although his daughters had 3.8 grade-point
averages in high school and his son aced the SATs. They're saving to go
back to school -- eventually. In the meantime, they work. His son lays
carpet and his daughters stock shelves in a warehouse.
Will they be able to move up the economic ladder, just like he
did? Clark ponders the question. After a long day, he is showing the
strain, getting sleepy with his regular bedtime of 6:30 p.m. fast
"I really don't know. It's just too uncertain. It really is.
There's nothing there," he says, turning completely serious for the
first time all day. "There's nothing you can just count on. I wish
One of over 300 articles