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How middle-class life eludes many Americans

Sean Crawford and Elisa Gurule are on the leading edge of a transformation of the auto industry that is contributing to a profound shift in American society – the deterioration of the once-mighty middle class.

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Sean Crawford, 30, is one of the American auto industry’s so-called tier-two workers, employees hired in recent years at lower wages as part of the Detroit Three’s bid to ratchet down costs and become globally competitive. For them, the classic middle-class life of a house in the suburbs, a new car every five years or so and maybe a cottage or regular travel isn’t possible on pay of $18 (U.S.) an hour.

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Some of his colleagues on the same assembly line who were hired years ago get paid a lot more -- $28 an hour, and they enjoy better benefits and can look forward to a healthy pension. The higher wage equals about $20,000 more a year.

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Mr. Crawford would like to move. He put an offer in on a house in Waterford, Mich., about 30 minutes closer to work.

“It was on a quarter-acre, fenced in-yard, single-car garage, three bedrooms, two full baths partially finished basement. It was nice – a step up.” The $86,000 asking price, however, was higher than the $78,000 maximum he thought he could afford.

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Elisa Gurule, 34, is not sure what future she has in the auto industry. He current job, installing seat belts and windshields at a Chrysler Group LLC assembly plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., pays $17.53 an hour.

That’s better money than she made when she was waiting on tables before joining Chrysler as a tier-two employee in 2011 – enough to buy one of the Chrysler 200 cars she helps put together. But at that wage, she still has to make tough choices about what to give up.

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The Romney campaign’s criticisms of the auto bailout carry no weight with Ms. Gurule, because, as she notes, without President Barack Obama, she would not have a job.

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Ms. Gurule and Mr. Crawford are on the leading edge of a transformation of the auto industry that is contributing to a profound shift in American society – the deterioration of the once-mighty middle class.

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It’s a pivotal issue in the U.S. election and the central challenge facing the next president. A frustrated electorate is looking for a real plan to boost the long-suffering economy and restore middle class prosperity.

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The 2000s were a cruel decade for middle-class America. Incomes dropped, net worth fell and jobs that once promised a middle-class lifestyle were vaporized amid globalization and the restructuring of entire industries such as airlines, steel and pharmaceuticals. As if that wasn’t enough, the decade ended with the real estate crash and the Great Recession.

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The growth in income inequality and the crisis facing the middle class have spawned fears that the long era of economic growth that turned the United States into the wealthiest nation on earth has ground to a halt. The risk is that the country is entering a period of economic stagnation, shattering the optimism that led generations of Americans to improve their lot in life.

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