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UNC Charlotte lecture: What went wrong for the middle class?

In his latest book, “Middle Class Meltdown in America: Causes, Consequences and Remedies,” Scott Fitzgerald douses the bourgeoisie with cold water to rouse them from their American Dream.

The reality, as it stands for the midsection of society, seems more like a nightmare.

On Sept. 18, Fitzgerald – an associate professor of sociology at UNC Charlotte and an avid researcher of economic inequality – will discuss the findings that led to his new book, co-written with Kevin Leicht, as the opening lecturer in UNCC’s 2014-15 Personally Speaking author series.

Now in its fifth year, presented by the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and Atkins Library, the series highlights university authors with free discussions open to the community. Reservations are requested for each event, which includes a reception and book signing after the lecture.

Fitzgerald’s discussion of the turmoil facing the middle class will take be 6:30 p.m. at UNCC Center City, 320 E. Ninth St. in Charlotte.

In “Middle Class Meltdown,” Fitzgerald and Leicht explore the gradual but drastic transformation the socio-economic class has undergone in the past 40 years.

That transformation is largely unknown to many members of the middle class, who thought they were striving and struggling for the American Dream the same as generations before, said Fitzgerald.

“After the post-World War II era, there was a clear sense of what it meant to be middle class,” said Fitzgerald. “You got a good job; were loyal to your company; put in hard work; invested in a house; and saved money when you could. Then, after a lifetime of doing that, you would be able to retire and enjoy some of that time.”

Decades later, it’s a formula that no longer guarantees the same results because many earlier factors no longer exist.

“Companies don’t tend to reward employee loyalty, and owning your own home is no longer that safe investment,” Fitzgerald said of today’s economic environment. “Economic security is really not there, as we’ve seen with the housing bubble and the number of foreclosures and bankruptcies.”

He pinpoints the beginning of the downward turn as the 1970s, when workers’ wages became stagnant even though the U.S. economy was in the midst of an unparalleled level of productivity and prosperity compared to other nations.

“In terms of overall economic vigor, the United States was sort of the poster-child of economic development,” Fitzgerald said of the 1970s and ’80s. “But the increase in productivity did not translate into higher wages for workers. What we did see was a growth of CEO bonuses and income.”

The widening gap between the elite and the middle class was camouflaged at the time by deregulation in the financial sector that allowed people to maintain or improve lifestyles by getting what they wanted through high-limit lines of credit.

“Essentially, we were building an economy that was a house of cards, and so eventually we saw some of that collapse in 2008 (and) 2009,” said Fitzgerald.

The book paints a dreary picture of the middle class’s plight but offers hope for a way to improve it, too, though it will require a combined effort from politicians, business owners and the American workforce to rebuild a strong middle class.

“There is an economic story and a political story and a social story. They’re all sort of entwined,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that’s one of the key things that we really should be talking about as a country.”

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