The view from the middle: Middle-class population, definition in flux
Andriana and Aleks Sethre figured they would be better off by now.
At age 30, they'd followed the rule book to success: finished high school, graduated from college, started professional careers, got married, had kids, bought a house. Overall, they're doing pretty well. But at the end of the month, there's not much to squirrel away.
"It may not be paycheck to paycheck, but it's pretty close," Andriana said from the living room of her ranch-style home on 24th Avenue South in Grand Forks.
It's a common refrain throughout the nation and one backed up by data. The middle class in America is shrinking.
The Pew Research Group reported the middle class no longer makes up the majority of the country. Its report found that in 2015, the middle class was made up of 120.8 million adults compared with 121.3 million considered to be upper and lower income. It marked the first time since 1971 the majority of the U.S. was not considered middle class. Pew counted the middle class as households earning between 67 and 200 percent of the median income, depending on household size. A single-person household was considered middle income with a range from $24,000-$73,000.
Between 2000 and 2013, middle-class households in North Dakota decreased from 52.6 percent to 47.5 percent. Minnesota saw the middle class drop 3 percentage points, from 52.9 to 48.9 percent over those years, according to Pew.
So, what does it mean to be middle class in 2017? Is it defined by income or consumption? It might just be a state of mind.
"You could do anything you wanted with it, and that's part of the problem and part of the fluidity," said David Flynn, chair of the UND economics department.
"The definition may be moot."
Between 2011 and 2015, middle income for a three-person household in North Dakota was defined as anywhere from $34,000 to $114,000. That's an enormous range, Flynn said.
Average incomes in the state grew each of those five years, Flynn said, but at smaller rates each year.
Median income in North Dakota varies widely among racial groups, Flynn said, citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. White residents' median income between 2011 and 2015 for a three-person household was between $51,000 and $60,000. Among black residents, it was between $26,000 and $29,5000. For Native Americans, median income fell between $26,000 and $31,000.
Being middle class is so much a part of American identity that both the working poor and the moderately wealthy often classify themselves as such, even if they're not sure what it means.
"They know what they think it should be," said Chih Ming Tan, professor and Page Endowed Chair in applied economics at UND.
Tan sees it best as a lifestyle. Owning a home and a car, having health care coverage, saving for retirement and being able to afford college are the mainstays of the middle class.
Economists say measuring the middle class has always been a metric for determining how strong the economy is and frequently turns into a proxy debate for whether the economy is growing.
"All of the research has suggested that economic growth improves with a strong middle class," Flynn said.
Flynn believes occupation no longer is a good indicator of someone's socioeconomic class, but said that data show obtaining a college education still essentially guarantees higher wages in the long run, regardless of profession.
Aleks Sethre attended UND on the GI Bill after an honorable discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps. He got a degree in finance, but now works for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, where he works with farmers. His job has little to do with his degree, but he's happy to have it.
While the middle class is shrinking and the lower class is growing, the upper class is also on the rise in America, Flynn pointed out, which is good. But it could be a problem if new people are not filling the void people are leaving on their way to the top.
"If they're migrating out and new people aren't migrating in, that might speak to a social migration issue," Flynn said.
Social mobility, the ability to move out of the socioeconomic class in which one is born to a higher class, is a good indicator of how healthy the middle class is, Tan said.
Tan referenced the Equality of Opportunity Project, a Harvard research effort that tracks social mobility across the country. While the middle class has shrunk in North Dakota, it ranks among the most mobile states in the nation. Tan said it's an indicator the middle class in North Dakota remains viable.
"It seems like the middle class is thinning, but equality of opportunity is still going up," Tan said.
The research suggests the Red River Valley might be among the most socially mobile areas in the country.
For example, if a child were to grow up in a poor household in Grand Forks County, she is expected to make 9 percent more than the average child who was raised in a poor household nationwide by age 26. The percentage is even higher in Polk County, where children who grow up in poor households are expected to have a 19 percent greater income than the average American child raised in poverty. Traill County was ranked the most mobile county in the region, with children raised in poor households there earning 24 percent higher incomes than children raised in poor homes on average by 26.
Class at home
Homeownership has long been seen as a gateway to the American middle class. But Grand Forks is not a particularly affordable place to buy a home, according to Emily Wright, who works with the Grand Forks Housing Authority and the Grand Forks Community Land Trust.
Wright and other experts define affordable housing as when a family or individual devotes 30 percent or less of their monthly income toward housing.
"Thirty percent really is a significant amount of money," Wright said.
Pew data show the share of households putting more than 30 percent of monthly income toward housing rose from 21 to 23 percent in North Dakota between 2000 and 2013. The number increased 6 percentage points in Minnesota, from 22 percent to 28 percent.
Housing experts look at U.S. Census data to compare median income to median home value in a given area to determine home affordability. An affordable home should cost three times a household's annual income or less. The ideal home market comes when the ratio of median home price to median income is 3.0 or lower. Grand Forks has a ratio of 4.35 as of August 2016.
"Our incomes are lower than Fargo and Bismarck and our housing costs are higher," Wright said.
When the Sethres began searching for a home in late 2014 with a maximum budget of $250,000, they didn't find too much.
"There was a lot in our price range, but most of the houses would need a lot of work," Aleks Sethre said.
Their place on 24th Avenue South became available at $210,000, and the Sethres said they had to make an offer within a few hours.
They've got the house they wanted, with a big backyard and a two-car garage. There's plenty of room for their three daughters and two dogs to run and play.
Child care is the primary expense keeping the Sethres up at night. Their oldest two daughters are in elementary school now. But 8-month-old Astrid's day care costs $700 a month. If all three girls are being watched, the price shoots to $1,500. Looking at those numbers hurt.
Flynn cited a sharp increase in child care costs as a reason for increased pressure on families.
The expenses have forced the Sethres to make hard choices. They've opted to lower their own income in an effort to decrease expenses. Andrianna went from being a labor and delivery nurse at Altru Health System to a nurse for the Grand Forks School District. The move saw her pay reduced, but means she can spend the summers with her girls, which greatly decreases the family's expenses. But the Sethres worry that move might not be enough, and Andrianna is considering opening a day care business at their home with the primary intent of cutting their child care costs for good.
"I'm glad I spent all that money to get a nursing degree to stay at home," she said with a dark laugh.
The Sethres say they're lucky to have Aleks' parents nearby and friends who can help out from time to time.
All in all, life is going well for the young family, and while they're grateful, they can't escape the feeling it should be better, they say. They're trying to save for their children to go to college. They don't know when they might be able to escape for a vacation.
Looking around their bright living room, the couple laughed at their younger selves for thinking they'd own a home at 25 and feel financially secure by their 30s.
"All of a sudden, reality kind of hit," Aleks said.