How One California Family Has Been Caught in the Middle

A tale of children who may never do as well as their parents

In a season of wildly conflicting pronouncements on the decline of the American middle class, the truth for most American families lies in the details of their lives. And the details paint a discouraging picture of the generational fortunes of the Forrester family since Bob, now 60, went to work as a tankerman in the Inland Boatmen's Union in Los Angeles harbor in 1957.

Look, for example, at the jarring similarities in two family purchases: Bob Forrester's first house, in 1957, and his daughter Peggy's first new car, in 1985.

Bob, then 29, bought a three-bedroom house for $9,750. He put...

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