SALT LAKE CITY — The Great Depression produced a generation dedicated to thrift and savings. The recent Great Recession may have stimulated similarly painful change among lower middle-class moms.
About 77 percent of mothers from households making $30,000 to $50,000 per year no longer consider themselves part of the American middle class — instead selected a new descriptor, the hard-working class, as more representative of their demographic, according to a consumer study by Cramer-Krasselt, an independent marketing and communications agency.
Unlike survivors of the Great Depression, however, these women aren't focused on savings. They just hope to get by, one check at a time.
"They're in the eye of the storm — struggling, but they don't qualify for aid," Joan Colletta-Sapp, co-director of brand planning for Cramer-Krasselt, said.
Where the America middle class is generally typified by financial security, home ownership and saving for college and retirement, the mothers who voluntarily assumed the hard-working class title in the survey devoted greater energy to providing basic necessities on a daily basis. About 83 percent of mothers surveyed said they could not afford to spare $1,000 for an unexpected expense, and 78 percent said their greatest desire was for additional security and stability.
"When you think middle class, you think comfortable, planning for the future," Colletta-Sapp said. "They don't identify with that."
But when it comes to observable differences of lifestyle, this hard-working class is very much an invisible demographic. The majority of these mothers are married and college educated, and 82 percent are Caucasian. More than half own their own homes. Most are employed — about 43 percent work full-time and 16 percent work part-time, while 32 percent stay at home with their children. Only 10 percent reported looking for work.
Many — about 53 percent — are also devoted to maintaining markers of normalcy for their families, Colletta-Sapp said. They continue to purchase brand-name goods instead of generic products, and, in some cases, have moved in with relatives or other families to better maintain a familiar, middle-class lifestyle.
"You'd be surprised what's behind the white picket fence," Colletta-Sapp said. "She might be the woman right next to you on the soccer field. It's not them, it's us."
Rather than cutting costs by seeking generic products and low prices, hard-working class moms have evolved new strategies for making every dollar count, Colletta-Sapp said. They hunt for deals and coupons wherever they might be found, organize online social networks for trading tips, meet in person to exchange hand-me-downs and carefully monitor sales.
Mothers also took precautions to avoid impulse buys, such as leaving the children at home when shopping and avoiding snack aisles entirely, and scanned promotional materials for news of a good deal, instead of new meal ideas.
They also cut back on entertainment and non-essential spending on products such as cable television and dining out. In some cases, mothers reported losing old friendships because they could no longer afford to attend social functions. These women built new connections with neighbors experiencing similar situations, with which they often pooled resources.
"This is a group that is really to be admired," Colletta-Sapp said. "They've really had to make it work."
While their strategies work for the most part, Colletta-Sapp said she encountered instances of food insecurity among some of the study participants. Fixed costs such as rent and utilities took top priority. Food fell to the bottom of the list, and when the money ran out, families "hibernated" and managed with what they already had while waiting for the next paycheck.
“When the money runs out we stay in and make do with what we have," one woman told Cramer-Krasselt. "I know what bills I can put off — like they’re not going to turn off my gas, but I've got to get my phone bill in.”
As with low-income families, these hard-working class mothers were also more likely to buy food items that could stretch across meals, such as rice, pasta and ground beef, instead of fresh produce.
Most families did not qualify for government aid, and weren't necessarily interested in handouts, Colletta-Sapp said.
"They're not looking for a way out," she said. "They're looking for opportunities."
The hard-working class mothers are generally proud of what they have accomplished on their own, Colletta-Sapp said, and most said they would not return to old habits should their financial situation improve.
"All indications show this group will be forever changed," Colletta-Sapp said. "I think these people are so dramatically changed — they've seen the smarter side of things."