The American middle class has been facing financial challenges and instability, despite being considered a symbol of the American dream in the past. A study by the Pew Research Center showed that the middle class has been steadily shrinking since the 1970s. Although the percentage of the middle class has remained the same at 59% in the US from 1985 to 2016, the middle class is now described as "squeezed" due to the pressures to maintain their lifestyle. The cost of living a middle-class life has grown more expensive and uncertain, moving farther beyond the reach of younger generations. Many middle-class families live with precarity, uncertainty, and debt, and the definition of the middle class is debated.
Wage stagnation in the United States has been a problem since the early 1970s, but became more pronounced in 1979. Although wages have increased, they have not kept up with productivity gains, and real wages have barely risen after inflation is taken into account. This has had a significant impact on the middle class, leading to inequality, poverty, and division. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to wage gains across industries, but it is uncertain whether this is a new reality. Automation has been a major factor in wage stagnation, especially in manufacturing jobs.
Despite high living standards and real wages, many Americans do not feel that they are sharing in the prosperity of the country. Legislative changes, such as limiting non-compete agreements and passing the PRO Act to make it easier for workers to unionize, could help address wage stagnation. The rise of remote work and the gig economy could also provide opportunities for higher-paying jobs.
The documentary highlights the growing debt burden faced by many Americans, with debt levels increasing significantly in recent years. While government support during the pandemic helped alleviate some of the debt burden, rising interest rates and the end of these support measures are causing concerns over household debt to rise again.
Also, lower-income households and households of color are disproportionately affected by high debt burdens due to structural and historical discrimination. Policies need to be updated to reduce wage garnishment and support households struggling with debt. Additionally, programs such as child tax credits and expanding Medicaid could help alleviate the burden of debt. The film also discusses how stress related to money affects mental health and overall well-being.