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Middle-Class American Dream Still Possible, Though More Elusive

The American dream may be more out of reach, but it's not impossible to achieve.
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The American dream may be more out of reach, but it's not impossible to achieve.

The middle class is certainly shrinking -- the mean net worth of middle-class families dropped 28% from 2001 to 2010 and median income for a four-person household actually declined from $73,000 to $70,000 over that period. And the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, with almost 46.2 million Americans living in poverty and the upper class holding a larger share of net income. Social mobility -- that hallmark of the American experience -- seems more like a myth.

It does seem harder to afford the middle-class lifestyle -- to own a home and a car, pay for college for two kids and take a vacation once a year -- faced with declining income and net worth. But it's still possible -- especially if you live in certain parts of the country like the South and the West.

The salaries in New York City, San Francisco and Boston may be high but that advantage is more than outmatched by the exorbitant cost of living. Sitcoms tend to show twentysomething graphic designers living in massive lofts with a closet full of stylish duds but the reality is a lot more depressing. I still remember paying $800 a month in rent for a studio apartment in the early '90s on a $19,000 salary (triple the rent and double the salary for today's kids). To survive, I snuck into museums and ate 50-cent packs of Ramen Pride noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

These days, I know plenty of middle-aged couples with kids in the city who are living paycheck to paycheck to be able to afford rent, child-care expenses and $3 muffins.

But there are plenty of states in the South and West that offer decent salaries and more affordable housing -- along with arts and dining attracting for culture snobs -- for those who have the time and savings to pick up stakes and move.

With a median household income in the mid $50,000s, a median home price of $130,000, low unemployment and plenty of nightlife, Texas cities like San Antonio and Dallas attract plenty of young families. Tennessee, Indiana and Kentucky also offer decent salaries and cheap housing.

It still seems possible to achieve the American dream -- but many of those jobs require a good education, meaning that the middle-class life may still be possible for those who are already there but it seems increasingly off-limits to the working class.

Due in part to inadequate schools and the exorbitant cost of health care, the poor are increasingly relegated to staying poor. In this economy, Horatio Alger would have had to get a degree at a good college, get some help from his parents and lift himself up by his bootstraps to enter the middle class.