|By Emily Alpert, Los Angeles Times|
The 28-year-old father said he sparred with his supervisors at a retail chain about taking time off after his mother died — and ended up unemployed. Since then, Roquemore has worked odd jobs and started studying nursing at
Roquemore is among the small but surging share of Americans who identify themselves as "lower class." Last year, a record 8.4% of Americans put themselves in that category — more than at any other time in the four decades that the question has been asked on the
The rising numbers surprised some researchers and activists even in light of the bruising economy. For decades, the vast majority of Americans have seen themselves as "middle class" or "working class." Even during earlier downturns, so few people called themselves lower class that scholars routinely lumped them with working class. Activists for the poor often avoid the term, deeming it an insult.
When people call themselves lower class, "we'll say, 'You're not lower than someone else. You just have less money,'" said
"They're just reflecting their economic reality," she said.
Unemployment surged during the downturn. Millions of homes were repossessed in the years since, and millions more people slipped into poverty. And years after the recession ended, the
For many, "the feeling is that things are not likely to get better any time soon," said
Last year, less than 55% of Americans agreed that "people like me and my family have a good chance of improving our standard of living," the lowest level since the
Jobless people have long been more likely than other Americans to call themselves lower class, but in recent years people who work at least part time have been increasingly likely to do so too. Activists say workers are frustrated as jobs with fewer hours and less pay have proliferated, a hallmark of the sluggish recovery.
"It's not surprising if the American worker is thinking, 'I'm working harder than I've ever worked, yet I'm being paid less — and I'm working two or maybe three jobs,'" said
To spend more time with her daughter, Garcia quit the second job two years ago. But that meant losing the house and the nearly
When gallstones sent Garcia to the emergency room four months ago, she decided against surgery because she has no health insurance. But the trip still left her with a bill she is struggling to pay. Garcia has tried to get other jobs, but none will offer her anything better. Pulled out of school to care for her baby sister as a teen, she never got a diploma or GED.
"And if I took a second job again, I might not have enough time to be with my daughter and my grandchild," she said.
Yet hardship doesn't completely explain the numbers. Census data show poverty rates were just as high in 1983 and 1993 — years when far fewer Americans called themselves "lower class." One difference this time around, some scholars suggested, is the widening gap between rich and poor.
Last year, the richest 10% of Americans enjoyed more than half of the income nationwide — the biggest share in nearly a century, a recent
People seem aware of the growing gap. When Americans are asked how much chief executives and unskilled workers make, they have reported bigger differences over time, said
High school dropouts are much more likely to call themselves lower class, but the numbers have also jumped among Americans who spent at least some time in college, the
In many ways,
"I'm still living at home," said Jimenez, who said she would call herself either working class or lower class. "I can't afford to live anywhere else."
Besides facing new stresses and inequalities, Americans might be thinking differently about class today.
"Working class used to be a term of pride," said
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