When the Legend Becomes Fact: The Middle Class in America

Middle class—two words that are impregnated with more meaning and baggage than any other in the American lexicon. From our nation’s inception, that middle class was what set us apart from the stuffy Old World attitudes of Europe or (later on) the Communist masses in the USSR and Asia. We were a nation of self made men1 not victim to the strictures of a caste-based society. America is the land of the free market, where the Andrew Carnegies of the world can be born with pennies to his name and die richer than God. This is pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps country, where all it takes is good ol’ fashioned gumption and ingenuity to end up married to Donna Reed with your 2.2 kids and trusty black lab safe & sound in suburbia. Listen to any stump speech by any politician in this country, regardless of party, you will hear the words middle class uttered so much you’d begin to suspect a friend had put him or her up to a dare. But, for how much the term gets bandied about on the campaign trail and on talk shows, one discussion rarely surfaces: what does middle class even mean?

Most basic dictionary definitions of the middle class describe it as simply a group of people in between the ruling class and the working class. This definition really doesn’t mean anything substantive because it describes the middle class as something that cannot exist in a vacuum and which has unlimited variability. One knows the aristocracy when one sees it, whether it’s based on birth or financial gain. Likewise, poverty or working class membership is hard to miss. Spotting the “middle class family” is more an exercise in profiling than anything else. The median US family income last year was $51,413. Someone who makes that amount surely must be middle class, yet deciding where the range of the middle class goes is largely arbitrary. One of the most recent estimates, by J.D. Foster of the Heritage Foundation, claims that 60% of American households are middle class, with incomes ranging from around $25,000 to $100,000.

A look at after-tax income increases since 1979 Hold on…a household making $25k a year is considered middle class? I’m no economist, but if the Federal Poverty Level for a family of 4 is $23,050 and $25k is the cutoff for middle class status, doesn’t that make almost all non-impoverished families middle class? Over the course of a year, someone working for the Federal Minimum Wage will make about $15,000 before taxes. So, if both parents work full time at minimum wage, then their family would technically be $5k above he low water mark for middle class membership…What?! How does that make anything resembling sense? So, if mom busts her hump working as a cashier at Wal-Mart and dad spends 40 hours a week washing dishes in the back of am Applebee’s, then that family qualifies as middle class? It is borderline impossible to raise a family on minimum wage, especially when both caregivers are fully employed and can’t watch the children, and now this is the culmination of the American Dream? No…income is not a substantive indicator of middle class status in this country. Not with idiotic metrics like that its not. And what about the sanitation or construction worker who actually makes 40-50k a year? Do you think he or she is going to self-identify as middle class or working class?

So, if income isn’t the best definer of middle class status, what is? To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, we are what we pretend we be, so we must be careful about what class we pretend to be in. Middle class truly is in the eye of the beholder. It was never that way with the Upper Classes. They have always been elite and guarded by blue-bloods like Cerberus at the river Styx to make sure only the desirable were permitted entree. To be middle class is predominantly to believe you are middle class. The arbiters of middle class status are yourself and your peers and the definition of what it means to be middle class differs on a person-to-person and community-to-community basis. If you believe policy wonks like J.D. Foster, 3/5 of all Americans are in the middle class. With the unemployment rate somewhere between 8-11% based on what stats you look at and with many Americans only able to find part-time work, it seems the only prerequisite for being middle class eligible is having a full-time job.

Why is this so important? After all, labeling yourself as middle class doesn’t put any more cash in your wallet. Changing the way you envision yourself in the great American caste system doesn’t get you a promotion or up the value of your house. Why am I spending so much time on semantics? Because it’s the semantics that matter, not the reality. To tweak an old quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “This is America, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Even if we were all to agree on a definite formula for determining class in this country, it wouldn’t matter. The only thing that makes a difference—and that politicians give a damn about—is how people classify themselves regarding class.

When I start pining for this guy’s policies, you know things have taken a bad turn.

Last week, The Chicago Reader posted an article on it’s The Bleader Blog about President Obama’s systematic aversion to mentioning poverty during his time in office and especially on the campaign trail. While reading the piece, I started to wonder why the Obama administration would pursue this strategy of acting like the lower and underclasses didn’t really exist. As the article points out, combatting poverty used to be a cornerstone of a successful presidential platform. Today we have a war on terror and back then we had a war on poverty. Hell, even Tricky Dick was in on the act. People don’t believe me when I say that a good deal of Nixon’s social policy was more liberal than Clinton’s or Obama’s, but it was. His Family Assistance Plan would have given $1,600 direct cash payments yearly (about $9,500 today) along with a further $800 in food stamps (about $4,800 today), to everyone who fell below the poverty line, regardless of if they had a family and/or spouse. If President Obama tried suggesting an idea like that today who would be ritualistically branded with a giant C on the floor of the senate to label him as a Communist worthy of shunning.

It’s no secret that American society has gotten more and more conservative over the past 40 years, but what’s truly incredible is how the public discourse we engage in has changed. We have become the ostrich who sticks his head in the sand and thinks no one else can see him just because he’s in the dark. The prevailing ethos in this country appears to have evolved into, “Maybe, if we just don’t talk about it, the whole thing will go away.” Likewise, Americans seemed to have adopted the view that if you don’t have to see something, then it doesn’t really exist. Hence, everyone bolted for the suburbs and the exurbs and every other -urb you can think of to escape the inconvenience of having to acknowledge urban blight. Since then, our metropolitan areas have turned into what Christian Parenti calls, the “themepark city.” These areas are dominated by big business (FIRE: Finance, Insurance & Real Estate), hi-tech industry and cultural/entertainment venues. And as these edifices to industry and capitalism were erected, the undesirable areas of the city were further cordoned off and over-policed so that their residents wouldn’t bother the paying customers.

As the gap between the haves and the have-nots has increased, our conception of what’s middle class has had to change as well. The very top level of the middle class, the eightieth percentile, has grown at more than twice the rate than its counterpart at the 20th percentile2. How someone can contend that someone making $18,000/yr and someone making $86,000/yr belong within the same socioeconomic class make my brain want to crawl out of my earholes. The words middle class don’t really mean anything anymore. It’s like every food manufacturer under the sun putting the adjectives “artisanal” or “gourmet” on their products. If Folgers makes a “gourmet coffee” and Dominoes has an “artisanal pizza”, then the words no longer have meaning. And, like Folgers and Dominoes, the term middle class is now a brand and our politicians are the pitchmen. The next time you watch a clip of Obama or Romney waxing poetic about the middle class ask yourself, “do they know who they’re talking about?” Or maybe it’s more important to ask if it would even matter if they did.

1. And now, at 75¢ to the dollar, women as well

2. In 1967, the 20th percentile made $14,002 annually, while the 80th percentile clocked in at $55,265. Flash forward to 2003 and the 20th percentile had gained 28.4% to $17,984 and the 80th percentile had shot up 62.6% to $86,867.

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Categories: Social Justice

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