5 Things the Middle Class Can’t Afford Anymore Due to Inflation

5 Things the Middle Class Can’t Afford Anymore Due to Inflation

Inflation has hit the middle class hard, making many once-attainable aspects of life increasingly out of reach. From essential services to traditional symbols of financial stability, the rising cost of living is reshaping what it means to be middle class in America.

This article explores five key areas where inflation has made it difficult for middle-class families to maintain their standard of living.

1. Quality Childcare: A Luxury for Working Parents

Quality childcare costs have skyrocketed, becoming a significant financial burden for working parents. Since 1990, ABC reported childcare expenses have increased by a staggering 263%, far outpacing the overall inflation rate of 133% during the same period.

In 2023, Bloomberg reported the average annual cost of caring for one child in the US reached $11,582, a 3.7% increase from the previous year.

Perhaps most alarmingly, in all 50 states, the cost of caring for two children now surpasses the average rent payment, with some states seeing childcare costs more than double the average rent. This stark reality forces many families to choose between work and family care.

Several factors contribute to these high costs. Quality care for infants and toddlers requires low staff-to-child ratios, ideally 1:4 or fewer, to ensure adequate attention and care. This necessity drives up labor costs, constituting the primary portion of any childcare program’s budget.

Beyond staff salaries, childcare centers face substantial operational expenses, including rent or mortgage, utilities, insurance, food, and supplies.

Unlike primary and secondary education, childcare services receive limited government financial support, leaving the burden of costs on families and underpaid providers.

This lack of public funding exacerbates the problem, as does the insufficient childcare options. Over half of Americans live in “childcare deserts” with limited access to care beyond immediate family and friends.

The impact on household income is severe. On average, families spent 24% of their income on childcare in 2023, far exceeding the US Department of Health and Human Services’ recommendation of 7%.

This childcare crisis affects job stability and workforce participation, particularly for women, and is estimated to cost the US economy $122 billion annually through lost earnings, productivity, and tax revenue.

2. Homeownership in Major Urban Centers: The Vanishing Dream

The dream of owning a home in major urban centers has become increasingly elusive for the middle class. Property values have surged, particularly in expensive cities across the United States, making it difficult for middle-class families to buy homes or even afford rent in these areas.

In the first quarter of 2024, the median single-family existing-home price climbed 5% to $389,400 compared to the previous year. This increase in home prices has significantly outpaced wage growth, creating a widening affordability gap.

Adding to this challenge, higher mortgage rates have further reduced affordability. In the middle of 2024, rates range from 6.7% for a 15-year mortgage to 7.5% for a 30-year mortgage, making monthly payments increasingly burdensome for potential buyers.

The housing market is experiencing a severe shortage of affordable homes, driving up prices and creating intense competition among buyers.

This scarcity, combined with the income disparity, has created a situation where a household making the median income needs to put down nearly $127,750, or 35.4% of the home’s value, to afford a typical US home comfortably, according to Zillow.

This is a significant increase from just five years ago when the same home would have been affordable with no money down. As a result, many middle-class families are forced to look for housing in less expensive regions, reshaping demographics in various cities and states.

This shift alters social and economic structures in many urban areas, fueling frustration and disillusionment among many Americans and affecting their perception of economic progress and opportunity.

The difficulty in achieving homeownership impacts the traditional path to wealth building for middle-class families, potentially widening the wealth gap. As homeownership becomes less attainable, it’s changing the very definition of the American dream for many.

3. High-End New Cars and Trucks: Luxury Vehicles Out of Reach

The price of new automobiles, particularly high-end models, has increased dramatically, putting many luxury vehicles out of reach for middle-class consumers. Advanced safety features, autonomous technology, and the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) have significantly driven up manufacturing costs.

The shift towards electric vehicles has increased costs, particularly in luxury. EV batteries and powertrains are expensive, and manufacturers often pass these costs on to consumers. Supply chain disruptions, including semiconductor shortages, have led to production constraints and increased costs.

High-end vehicles often use more expensive materials, increasing prices due to inflation and supply issues. With high demand and limited supply, manufacturers have reduced incentives and discounts, especially on famous models, further increasing the total cost of ownership.

Financing challenges have also made these vehicles less affordable. Higher interest rates have made auto loans more expensive. Loan terms have been extended to 72 or even 84 months to make payments more manageable, increasing the total cost.

These factors have led to a situation where many middle-class consumers who previously could afford to purchase or lease a new luxury vehicle now find themselves priced out of the market. This shift pushes some buyers towards the used luxury market, more affordable brands, or extending their current vehicle’s lifespan through repairs and maintenance.

4. Out-of-State Private College Education: A Financial Stretch

Out-of-state private school higher education has become increasingly unaffordable for middle-class families. According to data collected by US News & World Report, the average cost of tuition and fees at private nonprofit universities reached $42,162 for the 2023-2024 academic year, representing a 4% increase from the previous year.

Beyond tuition, students must also cover expenses such as housing, food, and books, amounting to thousands of dollars annually. The total cost of attendance at private nonprofit universities for students living on campus averages $58,628 per academic year.

Many middle-class families fall into a “gap” where they earn too much to qualify for substantial need-based aid but not enough to afford the total cost of attendance comfortably. This is sometimes referred to as the “barbell effect,” where institutions prioritize low-need and no-need families, squeezing out middle-class students.

Recent changes in financial aid calculations have eliminated the sibling discount, potentially doubling out-of-pocket payments for middle-income families with two children in college.

Additionally, as more students compete for limited merit-based scholarships, middle-class families who don’t qualify for need-based aid may find it harder to secure financial assistance.

The long-term implications of this trend are significant. The average student loan debt per borrower is $28,950. This substantial debt burden can have long-lasting effects on a graduate’s financial future, making the decision to attend an out-of-state private school even more challenging for middle-class families.

5. Private Healthcare Without Employer Support: The Unaffordable Safety Net

The cost of private healthcare outside of employment or COBRA insurance has become increasingly unaffordable for the middle class.

According to a ValuePenguin analysis, the average price of private health insurance plans on the marketplace will reach $584 per month or $7,008 per year in 2024, a 4% increase from the previous year. This represents a significant portion of middle-class household budgets.

Even with insurance, middle-class families face substantial out-of-pocket deductibles, copays, and coinsurance expenses. The average deductible for employer-sponsored plans was $1,763 in 2023, almost double the amount since 2010. The prices of new and existing medications continue to rise, contributing to the overall healthcare cost burden.

While lower-income individuals may qualify for significant subsidies on marketplace plans, middle-class families often fall into a gap where they earn too much to be eligible for substantial assistance but not enough to afford premiums and out-of-pocket costs comfortably.

Healthcare costs vary significantly by location, with some states experiencing higher premiums than others. For instance, Alaska residents face the highest premiums at $11,376 per year 2024. Age-based pricing also affects older middle-class individuals, who face higher premiums as insurance costs increase with age.

The middle class is disproportionately affected by medical debt. In 2020, 23.5% of middle-class individuals carried medical debt, higher than both lower—and higher-income groups. This existing debt makes it more challenging to afford ongoing healthcare costs.


These childcare, housing, education, transportation, and healthcare trends highlight the growing financial pressures on middle-class families across various essential aspects of life.

As these cornerstones of middle-class life become increasingly unaffordable, we may see significant shifts in economic landscapes, social dynamics, and policy priorities in the coming years.

Addressing these challenges will be crucial for maintaining a strong and stable middle class, which has long been considered the backbone of the American economy.