What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

In today’s economy, even two-income families struggle to make ends meet

Aaron and Mary Murray are middle-class Americans, but they don’t feel like it: though the two teachers make a combined $90,000 a year, they still live paycheck-to-paycheck. Even something as mundane as a stranger accidentally sideswiping their car can put a serious dent in their finances. Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal reports on the struggles facing the Murrays and millions of similar families.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, first: the financial pressures of the middle class. It's part of what you're hearing from voters and on the campaign trail this year.

    Tonight, we zero in on the case of a California family feeling the squeeze. It's part of our joint project with American Public Media's Marketplace and PBS' "Frontline," and it's called How the Deck Is Stacked.

    It's funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

    The correspondent is the host of Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal.

  • AARON MURRAY:

    Don't I call my insurance first to make a claim?

  • MARY MURRAY:

    Yes. Do you think it's totaled?

  • AARON MURRAY:

    Yes.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    This has not been a good morning for Aaron and Mary Murray and Vandy, their 5-year-old daughter. They came out to find Aaron's car had been hit overnight, one of those unexpected expenses that can throw a lot of middle-class families off-track.

  • WOMAN:

    Thank you for calling Esurance. My name is Rebecca. How can I help?

  • AARON MURRAY:

    Hello, Rebecca. I'm calling because my car got sideswiped. I did not see them. They just left a note on my car, ah, and the note that they swerved to avoid a cat dashing across the street.

  • WOMAN:

    OK.

  • MARY MURRAY:

    Got to brake for animals.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Things get back on track, though, with Mary's car, and they head to the Los Angeles Zoo to meet some friends. Vandy's really looking forward to the dinosaurs.

  • MARY MURRAY:

    Oh, my gosh.

  • AARON MURRAY:

    It's OK. I will protect you.

  • MARY MURRAY:

    Yes, right. He makes noise. I think he's real.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Over a standard zoo lunch of chicken fingers, talk turns back to that car accident.

  • AARON MURRAY:

    The check goes to pay off the car. It doesn't come to me.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Next up, groceries at Target. And Vandy is eager to help.

  • VANDY MURRAY:

    Fruit, taco kit, and (INAUDIBLE)

  • MARY MURRAY:

    Nice. High five. Boom. Awesome.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Mary keeps close eye on the family budget. Money-saving apps are key.

  • MARY MURRAY:

    Bread, any bread. Unlocked. Cha-ching, 25 cents.

  • AARON MURRAY:

    All right.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    The tricky thing when you're talking about the middle class is who exactly you're talking about. One definition, according to the Pew Research Center, is a family of four making between $48,000 and $145,000 a year, which is basically the Murrays.

    They're both teachers. Household income is right at $90,000. And they're the ones that politicians talk about all the time.

    Hey, how're you?

  • AARON MURRAY:

    Hello.

  • MARY MURRAY:

    This is Vandy.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Hi, Vandy. How are you sweetie? You good?

    Crazy day today?

  • AARON MURRAY:

    Yes.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    You walked out to — what, Aaron, you walked out to get your laptop?

  • AARON MURRAY:

    Yes, I had been sideswiped this morning. Like, the rear axle's broke. It is — I mean, this is…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MARY MURRAY:

    Yes. And that's part of it.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Is that part of the wheel?

  • AARON MURRAY:

    Yes, that's the wheel.

  • MARY MURRAY:

    The tow truck's here.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    How big of a pain is this, other — you're insured, but…

  • AARON MURRAY:

    Exactly. That's exactly it. I'm insured, but even if they pay everything out, I now don't have a new car. Do we get a new car? How do we find the money to get the down payment? Like, that's really the big thing.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    So, what's that going to do to your monthly budget?

  • AARON MURRAY:

    This month is shot, right? This month is shot. Next month is shot. I'm a teacher. I don't get paid over the summer.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    As you try to get ahead, this is like two steps back, maybe more.

  • AARON MURRAY:

    Yes.

    They say they're going to cover everything, but covering everything is never everything.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Our family, the Murrays, they make $90,000 a year.

  • JENNIFER PATE, Loyola Marymount University:

    Yes. Yes.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Now, granted, they live in L.A., an expensive part of the country. Housing is ridiculous.

  • JENNIFER PATE:

    Yes.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    They're middle-class, right?

  • JENNIFER PATE:

    They would be, yes, by definition.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Jennifer Pate is an economist at Loyola Marymount University.

    When we hear politicians and others say the middle class in America is being hollowed out, what does that mean? It means it's getting smaller?

  • JENNIFER PATE:

    Yes. People are either going up, which is called upward mobility, or more likely it's downward mobility. We're seeing a hollowing out of the middle. These are people who purchase goods and services across the year that leads to higher economic prosperity in our country. What do families do when they struggle?

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    They don't spend, right? They retrench.

  • JENNIFER PATE:

    They spend less. They sometimes have to take jobs that have better security, but pay lower wages. Wages have been stagnant in real terms roughly since the mid-'70s.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Our family, the Murrays, they're teachers, they're hustling to get by. Getting their car wrecked wasn't in their budget.

  • JENNIFER PATE:

    Yes.

    When you're living very close to your means, or just barely living within your means, when you have a catastrophic events, right, something like having your car get totaled unexpectedly, that disproportionately weighs on you.

  • MARY MURRAY:

    I don't feel middle class. I would like to feel middle class. I don't. I hardly even feel like an adult.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    We asked the Murrays whether they expected things to turn out like this.

  • MARY MURRAY:

    In my best remembrance, we actually had planned on, like, having bought a house, even here in L.A. We were going to have somebody's loans paid off.

  • AARON MURRAY:

    Yes, and I would be done with my master's program, and in a teaching job for LAUSD.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    All right, so run me through that. How'd we do?

  • MARY MURRAY:

    No loans are paid off. We do not have a house.

  • AARON MURRAY:

    I hate to say student loans are the only reason, but they are a large reason. I could have purchased a house for the amount of my student loans.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Are there months you choose not to pay bills?

  • MARY MURRAY:

    I have from time to time chosen not to pay something or to skip something. I never skipped the rent. I never skipped the car payment. I never skipped the insurance.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    When you look at this election…

  • AARON MURRAY:

    Yes.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    … do you feel like the politicians and the campaigns and the candidates are paying attention to your situation? Hillary Clinton talks about the middle class all the time. Donald Trump has a middle-class element in his platform.

  • MARY MURRAY:

    Yes. But I don't think they see the reality of the middle class. I think that there's a — like, there's an idea of what middle class is, which I think middle class is, you don't live paycheck to paycheck.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Do you think your fortunes are going to change based on this election?

  • MARY MURRAY:

    I don't.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Maybe a better question, though, is what about the fortunes of their daughter?

    Are you two setting Vandy up to be better off than you are right now?

  • MARY MURRAY:

    I hope so. I don't really know.

  • AARON MURRAY:

    When you say save money, cut this out, don't do that, it doesn't always work that way, because the one person I do have the hardest time saying no to is my daughter. If she says, let's — can we go to Pinkberry, and we say no because we only have $50 left for the rest of the month, that's kind of hard.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Yes.

  • MARY MURRAY:

    Yes. She loves going to gymnastics. That's not negotiable.

  • AARON MURRAY:

    Yes.

  • MARY MURRAY:

    That is something that we pay every month for her. She loves it, and we did cut out a lot of things so that she could do that.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    This isn't a story or a series about one family. It's about an economy that's changing, and what it means when something as simple as your car getting sideswiped can set you back on your heels.

    The middle class is what makes this economy go, the Murrays and the millions of families like them being able to buy stuff. It's almost that basic. And if they're getting squeezed, if the deck is stacked, then everybody's going to feel it.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Kai Ryssdal from Los Angeles, California.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest