The Shrinking Middle Class: The Current State of Affairs

Stories from people chasing the American dream.
December 20, 2018, 11:30 AM UTC
Winni Wintermeyer for Fortune Magazine

Most Americans consider themselves part of the “middle class,” but no one can agree on what term that means. The problem? If sizing up the middle class is difficult enough, it’s even harder to say that circumstances within this group have changed. But they certainly have. As you’ll discover in this Fortune special report, life has gotten more difficult for the millions of people within the middle class. We dispatched more than 50 people to discover why the American dream has been fading for far too many.

In this section, we examine the current state of affairs by speaking with the people affected most by it. What we learned: Chasing the American dream was once exhilarating; now it’s exhausting.

Trailer Park Living in Techtopia

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When Umbelina Martinez’s family first came to the United States decades ago, from ­Michoacan, Mexico, they settled in a three-bedroom house in Redwood City, Calif. It wasn’t all theirs; 25 people lived on the property, sharing a single bathroom. Martinez’s family of eight squeezed into one bedroom. “My mom and dad had to step over us kids to get to the door,” she recalls.

Today, the 46-year-old single mother of three has much more spacious accommodations: a 200-square-foot mobile home in a trailer park in Palo Alto, the heart of the technology industry and one of the most expensive cities in the country. She has lived there 13 years.

“Who wouldn’t wish to live in Palo Alto?” she asks, seated in her kitchen, which doubles as a living room, dining room, and storage space. Its thin walls are painted pale green, and there is a black refrigerator set against one wall, topped with a TV monitor. (The small quarters call for some creative design.) Kiwis and oranges rest on a tiny table pushed so close to the door that it almost touches.

Most of Martinez’s neighbors live in two- or three-room trailers with their families. Many keep pets. Their homes come in an array of colors, and some feature tiny gardens blooming with flowers and hot peppers.

If Palo Alto, with its many Silicon Valley billionaires, seems like an unlikely location for trailer living, that’s because it is. The Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, tucked behind a Valero gas station on one of the city’s busiest streets, is home to just over 100 trailers and about 400 residents, including Martinez and her kids; her mother, sister, and brother; and his family. (Her mother lives with her; her sister and brother have separate mobile homes.) The residents of the park are mostly working-class immigrants who hold jobs in nearby restaurants, hair salons, and construction sites. They pay around $1,400 a month for rent and utilities in an area where the median home price is $3.2 million.

“For my family and me, it would be impossible to live anywhere else in Palo Alto,” says Martinez, who works as a banquet server at the nearby Four Seasons Hotel.

Buena Vista started out as a road-stop general store and motel in the 1920s. Over the years, it grew into one of the last sources of low-income housing in Palo Alto. In 2012 its then owners informed the residents of the mobile home park that they wanted to sell the property to an apartment complex developer. The plan included some restitution for residents, who would be evicted.

“I didn’t want the money,” says Don Roberto Munoz, one of Martinez’s neighbors. “I wanted my daughters to stay in the schools here.”

Martinez and others echoed the sentiment. So they banded together, aided by supporters from Palo Alto. In 2017 the Santa Clara County Housing Authority purchased the property for $40 million, allowing tenants to stay put.

Martinez’s sister Maria now serves as the president of Buena Vista’s residents association. “It is important to show that there isn’t just one way of thinking,” Maria says. Just a few miles west of her one-room trailer, the founder of Sun Microsystems is selling his four-story mansion. The price? $96.8 million. —By Michal Lev-Ram; Photographs by Winni Wintermeyer for Fortune

A Fight To Preserve His Public Pension

Louisville teacher Matthew Kaufmann, 39, stands his ground.


Teacher Matthew Kaufmann sits for a portrait in his classroom at Marion C. Moore School in Louisville, Ky. on December 14, 2018.Luke Sharrett for Fortune
Luke Sharrett for Fortune Magazine

I do fine—for now. I’m a high school English teacher. I have a condo, a girlfriend, and $70,000 a year. We glamp. But sitting in comfort isn’t comfortable if you’re doing it only because standing up marks you as an enemy. In 2018, I stood up.

The governor of Kentucky rushed a bad pension reform bill through the legislature in a day. In April, teachers from all 120 counties called in sick to protest in Frankfort. Every public school district was closed. The governor’s response was to say that because of us not doing our jobs that day, kids were getting molested and using drugs for the first time. He called us thugs. He said we weren’t sophisticated enough to understand our own pension plan. They all think of us as babysitters, but I don’t know any babysitters who are required by law to do professional development every year or who need multiple master’s degrees. I have to do my job while I defend my profession. It’s exhausting.

Used to be we could retire in 25 years. Now it’s 27. They move the goalposts. I don’t mind failing as long as I’m failing forward, but this is sabotage. We used to be a country of opportunity. Now we’re a country of hope. Hope is the tax they’re always raising.

People in the margins are being pushed off the page. If you’re not vigilant, you get taken advantage of. We have to be alchemists, turning nothing into something, forcing a system built to fight us into something that somehow works. It’s not democracy; it’s oligarchy.

I see a lot of politicians in this country thinking the point of power is to see how they can use laws to make money. Citizens ­exist only as donors or lobbyists. The powers that be define America by control, not freedom. I question often that I’m even a person to them.

It’s not a poverty you feel in your bank. You feel it in your mirror. There’s wealth that’s not monetary. It’s in community, culture, knowledge, experience, and engagement. As long as we measure a person or our nation by the stock market, we will always be poorer than we realize. —As told to Richard Morgan

Struggling at the Superstore

My name is Dio Gourley. I’m a 19-year-old trans man of the he/him variety who lives and works in coastal Mississippi as a door greeter at Walmart.

I work between 23 and 35 hours a week at $11 an hour. I can’t have a second job because of how unpredictable my schedule is. If I request certain days off, I’d lose hours. Walmart is the best-paying job in town in the poorest state. If we went on strike, they wouldn’t bat an eye at firing us. We can’t organize without risking getting fired.

I get to work with a ride from my great-aunt. If I have time to meal prep, I can eat for two weeks on $60 or less. If I have money and don’t bring something from home, I eat at Waffle House right across from us. I try to tip more than 15%, but that’s not much when you only have triple hash browns and a coffee. Some of them need it more than I do. We’re all in this together.

My mom stays up until 11 p.m. to bring me home, even though she gets up for work at 5:30 a.m. When I was a kid, before Hurricane Katrina, my dad worked offshore, and my mom painted houses. We were living with my grandmother and great-aunt for four years. After that, we lived in a trailer. Dad ended up dying of alcohol withdrawal—he didn’t realize he had pneumonia. Government checks kept us afloat while Mom was between jobs. And by afloat, I mean picking and choosing which bill gets paid that month.

I now live with my mom again, after a brief stint with a boyfriend and a roommate. Honestly, we weren’t making it. Money is part of why I returned home. Both of my siblings have moved back at various points. It saved them money on babysitting, but to be completely honest, I didn’t eat to make sure my nephews could. Mom was the same way. A meal of grits and some cheap junk food every day and lots of sweet tea to keep the blood sugar up high enough to get things done.

We put our bills in a bag and draw one or two at random when the money’s tight. My plan isn’t to move out; it’s to build a cabin on the lot next to us for Mom to live in, so we can take care of each other for as long as she’s still here. Less rent and mortgage that way.

If there is an “American dream,” it’s really a nightmare. Two jobs to keep up, three to get ahead. Everyone around me keeps getting poorer. I’ve got friends who haven’t been able to catch up on bills enough to save $400 to go visit family, while the people working us to death are buying third and fourth yachts. How is that a dream? —As told to Carson Kessler

Looking For Opportunity, Finding Little

Walter Ware, 40, relocated for a better life—and found it just didn’t add up.


Walter Ware works his route in Alpharetta, Ga., one of the wealthiest towns in the state.Melissa Golden/Redux for Fortune
Melissa Golden/Redux for Fortune Magazine

I started in Residential Trash in 1998, riding on the back of garbage trucks in eastern Michigan when I was 22. Eventually, I went to get my commercial certification and started driving. Last fall I moved with my girlfriend to Georgia. With five kids in the house, we thought our money would go further. I transferred to a driver position serving affluent communities like Alpharetta. But the pay was less than two-thirds what I had been making. I bring home $188 a day. We’re struggling. It takes three of my checks for us to meet the rent. This was like setting me back 20 years. —As told to Grace Donnelly

Janelle Christensen

Executive Director: The Family Support & Treatment Center in Orem, Utah


Illustration by Joel Kimmel
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

There is stigma around assistance programs. Many of the [child and parent counseling] programs we offer are subsidized by government grants, private foundations, things like that. We get asked a lot: “Are people gaming the system?” It doesn’t happen very often.

Most of the time, it’s hard for these families to ask for help. Parents feel like they’re failures because they are unable to take care of their family because of their lack of connections or resources.

It shouldn’t be an us-vs.-them mentality. It shouldn’t be a handout, but a hand up. As a society we can do a better job of supporting people so they don’t feel like they have to choose between a job or kids. —As told to Carson Kessler

Luxuries? They Aren’t On The Menu

Memphis cook Bobby Hagebusch, 43, makes do with a roommate—and no TV.


Bobby Hagebusch stands for a portrait near the Beale Street in Memphis.Andrea Morales for Fortune
Andrea Morales For Fortune Magazine

I’m a prep cook on Beale Street. Been doing it eight years. Four years ago I quit, then came back with a raise: $13.50 an hour. I didn’t want to ask for more than that. I’m not greedy. Most places won’t pay that much.

Every day three alarms wake me up at 5 a.m., and I ride my bicycle five miles to work. I get to work at seven and have the kitchen to myself until about three or four in the afternoon. I make sauces, soups, pastas, salad dressing, six desserts—all of them are from scratch except the brownies. The pecan pie is the hardest to make. It’s an important job but it’s low on the totem pole. I’m barely above the dishwasher.

I bring home $1,400 a month after taxes, but $650 goes straight to rent, even though I have a roommate. It’s a tight budget. Money is so awful. What luxuries do you choose? I don’t have a television but I do have YouTube Red for music. I got a smartphone this year; it had been flip phones until then. No dates, though. They’d have to be ok with a beer and a shared appetizer. And who is OK with that?

Over two years I saved up $2,000 to buy a nice bicycle, since I use it every day. When the power goes out here—and it goes out a lot—the bank isn’t open, so I try to be my own bank as much as I can. I have about $800 in the bank, checking and savings combined.

I’m from Oklahoma but I haven’t done a real visit home in years. I went for Christmas a few years back. My grandfather was turning 90, so we made a fuss. I spent all my Christmas money on renting a car and gas. But every year I make the same joke: I give everyone I care about the same thing—not a damn thing.

Most of the stuff I own is older than me. My cast-iron skillet. My mixer. I have my great-grandfather’s electric lamps. People don’t want things, but I’m fine taking them. I have one brand of shoes I buy. They’re wood and leather and they take a while to break in. Some people buy them, can’t stand the discomfort, and re-sell them for cheap. Sometimes you see cheap ones for sale because they’re burgundy. I guess people don’t like burgundy shoes, but I don’t mind.

I’m not all stressed. I guess I could be, but I’m not. Give me sunshine and yard work and I’m happy. On Tuesdays there are half-price matinees at the movie theater, so that’s what Tuesdays are for. My luxuries are my friends. So are my recipes. I sell cakes and things on the side. Cheesecakes and custards are the best—no fuss. I make a sabayon, a complicated French custard, that’s a bit of a wow. Google “boiled cookies.” You’ll be glad you did.

My new boss is nicer. So I’m going to enjoy that while it lasts. I’ve had a lot of bosses. He’s No. 7 at this job and probably the best. I’m just gonna work until they put me in a nursing home. And if I can’t afford the nursing home, well, put a bullet in my head. —As told to Richard Morgan

Work-Life Balance? Not a Chance.

Caregiver Marylou Angel’s top customer is her 92-year-old mother, Lois.


The pair pose for a portrait in Lois’ home December 11, 2018.Kendrick Brinson for Fortune
Kendrick Brinson for Fortune Magazine

I had my own business: Mary Lou’s Hair Salon. With three employees! It was a dream. It was hard, but I’d say, Okay, so it’s a hard day or a hard week—but one day I’ll retire and take that cruise. I had to retire early, at 62, to take care of my mother. Those first three years were hard because I waited until 65 to collect Social Security. And, really, it just stayed hard. No cruise now. No cruise ever. Not anymore. Best we did awhile back was a day trip to Morro Bay. It was pretty, but it wasn’t much time.

My mother is 92 years old. She worked in the fields, picking tomatoes or cotton. She’s illiterate. She never thought she’d make it much past 60 or 70. Now here she is, 92, in denial about needing a hearing aid. She’s diabetic and about $300 of her monthly $928 goes to medicine. I get $11 an hour through Medicaid for being her caregiver—about $400 every two weeks, after taxes and dues—but we’re trying to get it to $15.

Every other day, I come over to her apartment. We each live alone, but we get to be alone together, if that makes sense. I’ll cook for her and feed her and bathe her. Maybe we watch an old John Wayne cowboy movie together. A few months ago, she had a minor stroke. I thought she might die. I realized how much my life has jumped ahead. I’m 72 but I feel kinda 90 now.

I’m very thankful for the 99¢ store. And I go to a church where God welcomes you as you are. I don’t buy new clothes anymore. Best I’ll do, splurge-wise, is buy makeup for my mom. Pink lipstick. I don’t know what kind of pink—there are lots of fancy pinks at real stores, but when it’s from the 99¢ store, it’s just plain old pink. We’ll put that on and feel 50 again. That’s enough. Not that we have choice about it, but it’s enough in the heart. It’s not about what you have. It’s what you bring. —As told to Richard Morgan

Decisions and a Doggone Dream

Narvell Muhammad, 48, learned how to weld with hopes to fund his true love: a dog-training business.


Narvell Muhammad welding at his job in Michigan.Nick Hagen for Fortune
Nick Hagen for Fortune Magazine

For most of my life I was struggling. I never felt financially secure. For the last 15 years I have owned and operated a dog training company called Top Dog K9. I train police dogs, personal protection dogs, security dogs, et cetera. Some years I would make around $10,000 a year. Other years, I’d make $50,000. My goal is to buy a facility so I can have a dog daycare kennel on top of the dog training I currently do. But to do that, I need save up money and build up my credit so I can qualify.

More than a year ago my cousin told me about a welding helper job in Maryland. I packed up and the next day I drove to Maryland, moved in with him, and joined him on the job. I noticed how much the welders were making. As that project was coming to an end, they started laying off workers—which isn’t odd, most would move on to the next job. But I was laid off for six months after that. During that time I continued operating my dog training company. The pay is inconsistent and not having a facility limits how many clients I can have at a time which limits how much I make.

In September, I completed a free welding course from Goodwill called “Flip the Script.” I trained at their Green Works facility in Detroit. Now I’m consistently making $2,000 to 4,000 a week between two of my separate welding jobs. I have five kids, aged 30, 22, 20, 18, and 13. I’m a father like every other father trying to make a better future for my family. I also own my own house in Detroit. But I hope to get into a training program for pipe welding where I could make around $5,000 per week. That way I can save up and be able to buy the dog daycare kennel and make dog training my only profession. I feel like I’ve entered into a new era in my life. —As told to Nick Hagen

Who Says Artists Must Be Starving?

New York City actor Nick Westrate, 35, discovers fame without fortune.

I had a good year. I had been in four plays—good, big plays—consistently for 52 weeks. They gave me a special Drama Desk Award for the achievement. This is what success was supposed to look like, right? It was only going well in that I was working in New York. I didn’t realize that working could be such a problem.

Off Broadway doesn’t pay. Maybe like $500 a week, or at best $750. That’s before taxes. And before that, 10% goes to your manager and another 10% to your agent. I was temping 9 to 5, doing administrative work at a hedge fund. I’d do that, a full workday, then go to the theater and nap on the Equity cot, then perform. I wondered what people who didn’t need to temp did with their days. They relaxed. They enjoyed the city. They lived. I was working but I wasn’t living. And during rehearsals, I couldn’t temp, so I lived off credit cards. I had four cards and tens of thousands of dollars of debt. And people were calling me successful. I was getting an award for how hard I was working! And at the same time I was declaring personal bankruptcy.

Every time you do an Off-Broadway play, you meet all the top people—the board members and donors and all of that—and they’re all thanking you. “Thank you! Oh my God, thank you so much! Thank you for doing this!” And I realized that they were thanking me because they knew they were fucking me over. They knew they could pay us more but had decided not to. They knew they were getting away with it. It’s the other acting in theater. We were all pretending it was fine, that we were fine, treating people like that was fine. I reached a point where I stopped pretending I was fine. A playwright told me once that America will always hate artists, because we get to do what we love. I didn’t want to believe that, but it’s true. It turns out you can’t take awards to the ATM or to your landlord. And—I have to say this—I’m a white male and having these fights. I can’t imagine how hard it is to be a black actor, an immigrant actor, a trans actor. The disrespect is shocking.

We work. A labor of love is still labor. It’s physically exhausting. It’s emotionally draining. It’s not a coal mine, but these days not a lot of work is happening in mines. There will always be new art, more art. The problem instead is that we don’t value it, not even within the industry. The Public Theater is a nonprofit—but one with a $44 million budget that pays $1 a year in rent. Shakespeare in the Park is free because it’s underwritten by $43 million from Delta. The money is there. They can afford not to screw actors over. We’re more than the labor. We’re the product, too.

We fought and in 2016 won huge wage increases, as high as 83% at some theaters. But it’s not enough. We need a focused fund—like we’re seeing in Boston, in San Francisco, in D.C.—that goes straight to fair wages on stage. Broadway makes so, so much that we could raise ticket prices there by 50¢ and it brings Off-Broadway six or seven million dollars closer to fairness. How the hell are you going to enjoy an actor’s work, the culture that work adds to the city, and say it’s not worth 50¢? This is necessary. Because otherwise we end up with the British problem that only the privileged can make art. No. I’m not willing to let the privileged be the only storytellers. I care too much about art to let that happen. —As told to Richard Morgan

Nicole Adkins

Executive Director & Founder: God’s Grace Mobile Food Pantry in Dayton, Ohio


Illustration by Joel Kimmel
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

In our area, a lot of the jobs that were coming in are going out. The pay rate is not as high as it used to be. Many of our factories have been outsourced to other locations. Businesses that closed have left families searching for jobs. The jobs they do find are giving lower amounts than before. People have to figure out if they are going to pay their monthly bills or buy food for their families.

A lot of people don’t realize that many of the homeless have jobs. The more you work, the more you get punished for trying to better yourself. We see families that were getting food stamps suddenly get a raise that puts them over that margin. They now have no choice but to come to a pantry to get food for their families. —As told to Carson Kessler

Caught in the ‘American Trap’

Preston Montague, 40, earned a degree and developed a career. But he’s still searching for his safety net.


Preston Montague studies for the landscape architecture exam in the kitchen of his rented home in Durham, N.C.Jeremy M. Lange for Fortune
Jeremy M. Lange for Fortune

My childhood felt like everything was intact. Even the ’90s and college. What followed was called a recession or income inequality or economic anxiety, but really it was an unraveling. I feel like a domesticated animal left alone in the woods, thrown outside but still able to see the light of living room windows. I don’t have a buffer. I float on luck. There’s an existential threat my parents didn’t face.

My dad worked for the government and has a pension. I, meanwhile, am a gay man with a queer job. I always have to select “other” on bank or government forms and hand-write “landscape architecture.” My entire existence, personal and professional, is a fight to be seen and understood. I am always explaining myself as if I shouldn’t exist. I met someone and told them what I do and their response was “That doesn’t sound like a lot of money.” It takes a toll—things like irritable bowel syndrome caused by chronic stress, the inflammation of loneliness, the inflammation of fear. There’s no respite. There’s no flow. I create all my flow. That’s my real full-time job. Everything is a damn fight.

The residential work I do is largely for two demographics: those who work in finance and those who work in medicine. My work is seen as a luxury good, which is a way to say I’m special when what they’re really saying is that I’m frivolous. I suppose I’m middle class, but what does that even mean? It’s all not-quite-poor and humbly rich. I don’t see much of a middle-middle class anymore.

My work improves the health of the human species and the planet, but people think I’m a glorified florist, an exterior decorator. They ask which flowers are cutest for the base of their mailbox. They expect me to have been trained with an answer, and to offer my expertise at no charge.

It’s deflating to realize the amount of money I make in a year hasn’t changed in a decade, despite getting a graduate school degree.

My budget is tight. Lower rent exists but it’s a choice between mold or mayhem. I have about $200 in savings per month, but only if I pay near the minimal amount of school loans back to not accrue interest. I’m not really able to pay the loans off. It’s $100,000. I just keep them from increasing. I plan to do this until I reach the 25-year forgiveness limit when my remaining school debt disappears. It’s sad. It’s shameful. Education here doesn’t guarantee anything other than debt. It’s a trap, the American Trap.

People who aren’t doctors and lawyers and bankers deserve the freedoms of dignity and comfort. Yes, my hands are dirty some nights, but not from work. I choose to grow my own food. Lettuce, kale, and collards in the summer and tomatoes, melon, and peppers in the winter. Some weeks I live off those vegetables. I make an unforgettable Three Sisters Stew. —As told to Richard Morgan

Juggling Service Jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area


Larrilou Carumba walks the picket line in front of the San Francisco Marriott Marquis. The new contract includes a wage increase.Courtesy of Unite Here
Courtesy of Unite Here

For more than six years, Larrilou Carumba has been tirelessly cleaning rooms at the luxurious San Francisco Marriott Marquis hotel, which hosts thousands of executives each year who congregate to the Bay Area’s lavish tech conferences. Carumba, a single mother and an immigrant from the Philippines, works full-time. She also has several side hustles. Still, she barely has enough money to provide for her children, who get meals from their school’s free lunch programs.

In addition to her housekeeping, Carumba has been working at a laundromat, where she’s paid under the table. She recently began delivering meals for DoorDash too. The extra cash helps pay bills for her family of four, who all sleep in the same cramped bedroom of her sister’s home in San Leandro, outside of Oakland. Her sibling took her in after Carumba’s family was evicted from their one-bedroom apartment. The landlord renovated the place, then increased the rent—an all-too-common practice in one of the world’s most expensive places to live.

During her most difficult times, Carumba says, she was working 70 hours a week. A typical day: Clean hotel rooms for hours, sleep after work from exhaustion, reawaken to work at the laundromat. Her children often woke her so she wouldn’t miss her night job. “I felt burned out with my life because all I do is work, work, work,” she says. “I cannot see my kids. I don’t have a life anymore. I cannot take care of myself.” The only quality time she would have with her children was when they would accompany her on her DoorDash deliveries.

There is hope. As a union leader, Carumba recently helped score a new contract for Marriott hotel workers that includes a wage increase. Soon, she says, she may finally quit one of her after-work jobs. —By Jonathan Vanian

He Fights Fire. He Fears Illness

Michael Young juggles three jobs, three kids, and one precarious income.


Michael Young at the fire station he works at in Michigan.Nick Hagen for Fortune
Nick Hagen for Fortune Magazine

I can’t afford to get sick; I don’t have time to. For over 10 years I have worked as a firefighter in Hamtramck, Mich. I also work as a paramedic for a mobile MRI company called National Diagnostic Services, I help out at my parent’s golf driving range, and I do handyman work for a few families around my home in Plymouth.

I work a minimum of 110 hours every week. I work 24-hour shifts at the fire station in order to fit in hours as a paramedic. I have three kids—aged 2, 5, and 8—who see me more through FaceTime than in person. That’s how we do math homework. I live on about four hours of sleep a night. I make $69,000 a year from the fire department but after my retirement fund, health insurance, and depositing money into my children’s college funds, I end up bringing home $576 ever two weeks. For my job as a paramedic, I bring home on average $1,000 every two weeks. I make more per hour as a paramedic because there is less that is taken out. Our mortgage is $1,000 a month and our health insurance deductible is $4,000, and we meet the deductible every year.

My parents don’t really pay me to work at their driving range. It’s a family business; you mostly do it as a favor. When I am not working, which is rare, I am dealing with the International Association of Fire Fighters union. I have been on the executive board for a few years. My wife doesn’t work because it would cost more for us to put our kids into daycare than she would make going to work. There is never enough money. We are a single-income family with three kids who are always in sports or dance. We need groceries. We get sick. —As told to Nick Hagen

Beau G. Heyen

President and CEO: NourishKC in Kansas City, Mo.

Illustration by Joel Kimmel
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

We put the poor in a box, we put the rich in a box, and then we want a middle box because we’re nervous to commit to which one we belong. We want to pretend that the middle class exists.

Poverty is when you don’t have enough. Maybe we need to talk about more than just low wages. We’re doing a disservice to those we’re trying to help when we label which programs are for people in poverty. For our flagship program, the Kansas City Community Kitchen, we serve breakfast and lunch five days a week for free. It’s designed for anyone who doesn’t know where their next meal is going to be. We are all one moment away from food insecurity. We as a community have to look at what we can do to lift people up. We just have to be willing. —As told to Carson Kessler

Bright Lights, Big Bills in New York City

Her nine-to-five medical billing job isn’t enough, so mom of two Kamik Chin drives Uber.


Kamik Chin walks to the subway after completing a day of work in Midtown Manhattan.Andre Wagner for Fortune Magazine
Andre Wagner for Fortune Magazine

By day I’m dealing with crying kids and irate parents, and by night I’m dealing with drunks and crazy people. Each year we get a raise, but for the past two years, we haven’t. My kids are getting bigger. My bills are more. And my income (about $42,500) is staying the same. Now when my kids are home with me on the weekends, it’s during the day, and I’m sleeping because I’ve worked all night. And by the time I wake up, it’s time to feed them, bathe them, and then take them back to their dad’s. I love my job, but I want to find something where I can work a straight nine-to-five and be okay. —As told to Aric Jenkins

See the full story and photo essay here.

United States of Divisions: A Glossary



The class to which most Americans think they belong, this group lost its status as the U.S. economic majority in 2015. The term was first used in the 18th century to describe people who were neither nobles nor peasants.


Though this specific term was popularized by historian James Truslow Adams in 1931, the concept of opportunity (often through meritocracy) in the New World predates the founding of the United States itself.


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, this population—which totaled 8.6 million Americans in 2015—works at least half the year but makes less than poverty-level income.


Designed to prevent individuals from falling into hardship, the American safety net consists of support from employers (i.e., benefits) and the government (including Social Security, Medicare, and food stamps). —By Erika Fry

See part II: “How We Got Here, And Why.

A version of this article appears in the January 2019 issue of Fortune as part of the special report, “The Shrinking Middle Class.”