What if something happens?: A qualitative study of the American middle class before and during the COVID-19 pandemic

WHAT [IF] SOMETHING HAPPENS?

A qualitative study of the American middle class before and during the COVID-19 pandemic
November 2020
Executive Summary

The “American middle class” is often invoked by politicians, pundits, and the media to signify not only an income bracket, but a way of life – the backbone of America, vital to the health and vibrancy of our economy, democracy, and society. In 2019, under the auspices of the Future of the Middle Class Initiative, we launched the American Middle Class Hopes and Anxieties Study (AMCHAS). For the first phase of the study, in the fall of 2019, we conducted focus groups in five locations across the U.S.: Las Vegas, Nevada; Wichita, Kansas; Prince George’s County, Maryland; Houston, Texas; and Lebanon, Pennsylvania. For the second phase, we conducted fourteen in-depth virtual interviews, which allowed us to learn how the pandemic was impacting middle-class Americans in real time.

While these stories are just based on a very small sample and thus cannot be used to infer how the entire middle class is faring in this pandemic, they add nuance and texture to the experiences of middle-class Americans and allow us to understand life during COVID-19 through their eyes. Below, we highlight the realities people shared; how they were already teetering on the edge, making difficult tradeoffs, or navigating injustice and racism in a pre-COVID-19 world, and how the pandemic has unveiled, exacerbated, but in some cases, actually alleviated the anxieties they experience in their day-to-day lives.

Taken together, these stories of middle-class Americans paint a picture of struggle and triumph, difficulty and resilience, and anxiety and hope. Through these stories, we see the pressures and vulnerabilities of the middle class before and during the pandemic and are better able to understand the sheer unworkability of middle-class schedules, the extent of their constricting budgets, even in more “normal” times, as well as the discrimination and barriers that Black and Hispanic or Latino middle-class Americans face on a daily basis.

Taken together, these stories of middle-class Americans paint a picture of struggle and triumph, difficulty and resilience, and anxiety and hope.

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About the Authors

Jennifer M. Silva

Jennifer M. Silva

Assistant Professor – Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University

Jennifer Silva obtained her PhD from the University of Virginia and is an assistant professor at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. Her research interests include political culture, social class, inequality, transitions to adulthood, qualitative methods, and family and intimate life.

Isabel V. Sawhill

Isabel V. Sawhill

Senior Fellow – Economic Studies, Center on Children and Families, Future of the Middle Class Initiative

Isabel V. Sawhill is a senior fellow at Brookings, working in the Future of the Middle Class Initiative. Her research includes economic growth, poverty, social mobility, and inequality.

Morgan Welch

Morgan Welch

Senior Research Assistant & Project Coordinator – Center on Children and Families

Morgan Welch is a Senior Research Assistant and Project Coordinator for the Center on Children and Families at Brookings. Her research interests are focused in the areas of paid leave, time use, gender equity, and child welfare.

Tiffany N. Ford

Tiffany N. Ford

Research Analyst – Future of the Middle Class Initiative

Tiffany Ford is currently a Social Policy PhD student at the University of Maryland College Park where she studies the subjective well-being of Black middle class women and intersectionality-based policy analysis. She is also a Research Analyst at the Brookings Institution.