Kay Dennison over at Kay's Thinking Cap inspired this question in my mind, with her post on Marco Rubio's claim that he's just a regular guy with working-class roots. I don't know much about Marco Rubio (other than he's a conservative Republican so I probably don't agree with him on many issues since I'm a moderate Democrat), and so I want to put the question of Rubio's class status aside. But her post, and several of the comments, got me to wonder: What is middle class in America today?
According to a definition from the Brookings Institution, the
middle class encompasses families with incomes between one-half the median income and twice the
median income. Today this would make a middle class annual income range from about $25,000 to
$100,000. But of course location makes a big difference. If you're trying to raise a family on a $100,000 a year in Boston, New York or Washington, you're barely scraping by. But if you're a couple without kids in Macon, Ga., or Mason City, Iowa, you're among the richest people in town.
However, it seems that most Americans consider themselves middle class, regardless of any objective standard -- and perhaps that's the only definition that really counts. Most doctors and lawyers and business managers think of themselves middle class, even if they're making $300k or $400k a year. Most cops and teachers and civil servants consider themselves middle class, even though most of them make less than $100k a year and many make much less than $100k a year (although many cops in my neck of the woods work the system so they make over $100k a year during the last years of service which determine their retirement income).
But surely, if you're among the so-called 1 percent -- people making over $500k a year -- then you probably think of yourself as among the rich, the upper class, the elite. On the other end of the income scale, if you're on welfare or food stamps, or live in Section 8 housing, you might think of yourself as part of the underclass -- although according to the National Center for Opinion Research, some 36 percent of people earning less than $15k a year call themselves middle class.
But what about us retired folks? The average Social Security benefit is just about $15k a year. So if you live on Social Security alone, can you claim to be middle class? If not, how much of a pension, or how big a balance in your IRA does it take to qualify? Again, the number is probably quite different depending on whether you live in New York or California, compared to lower cost areas in Texas or South Carolina.
By objective standards, the middle class has been shrinking for the last four decades. But we all know that being middle class is not just about income. There's a cultural aspect to middle class that involves work, education, family, community. Do you need to be a high-school graduate to join the middle class? A college graduate? Do you have to own your own home?
It would seem that unless you're legitimately retired, one or two people in the family would need to have a steady job to make a claim to the middle class. Welfare mothers, homeless drug addicts, rich playboys and people living off the grid are probably not considered middle class.
Despite the importance of the middle class in American legend and lore (not to mention politics), some people don't want to be associated with the middle class. A lot of inner city blacks make fun of middle-class whites who they consider square, unimaginative, uncool people who "just don't get it." Young people living in Brooklyn or The Mission take pains (unlike Marco Rubio) to hide or deny their solid middle class roots. These young hipsters think they're special in some way. And one thing we know about middle class people: They are not special.
From my experience, a lot of people on the university campus, as well as artists of all types, would rather be caught dead than be lumped in with the middle class. These sensitive, tortured intellectuals ridicule the bourgeois morals of the middle class and are horrified by their ticky tacky suburban houses surrounded by white picket fences.
So are you middle class? One way to find out is to take a survey offered on msn.com called 9 Ways to Know if You're Middle Class. Or if you're more ambitious, you could read the U. S. Dept. of Commerce report Middle Class in America. But in the end, only you know for sure.
Nevertheless, when all in said and done, some of us are proud to be middle class, whether we really are or not. I guess that's one thing I have in common with Marco Rubio.