Middle-income families in the economic downturn: challenges and management strategies over time

Roberta Rehner Iversen, Laura Napolitano, Frank F Furstenberg


The “Great Recession” has hurt many families across the United States, yet most research has examined its impact on those already considered poor or working poor. However, this recession has affected middle-income families, whose experiences with economic challenge have seldom been looked at in any detail. Such families have been recently called “the new poor,” “the missing middle,” and “families in the middle.” One in seven American children under age 18 (10.5 million) has an unemployed parent as a result of this recession, and because economic mobility for children in the U.S. is affected by their parents’ earning capacities, their mobility potential may be mediated by parents’ strategies for children’s educational futures. The research presented here, which is informed by Weberian stratification theory and capital theories, is based on a longitudinal subset of a larger two-country, multicity, mixed-methods study that used surveys and qualitative semi-structured interviews to explore how middle-income families contend with economic downturn and how their adolescent children’s educational futures might be influenced. Our findings suggest that most families maintain their children’s developmental and educational status quo, but their strategies to do so constrict the potential for educational attainment. As such, the American approach to off-loading much of the cost of higher education to middle-income families who are economically stressed is not viable if we hope to maximize the number of children who will receive mobility-enhancing postsecondary education.


Children’s Education; Economic Downturn; Families; Longitudinal; Management Strategies; Middle-Income; Mixed Methods; Recession

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14301/llcs.v2i3.150

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