Monday, February 18, 2013

What Is Middle Class?

     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 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.



Janette said...

Our income says we are poor.
Our shopping says we are middle class.
Our land (in this area of the country) says we are rich.

No wonder why I cannot figure out who to vote for :>)

schmidleysscribblins, said...

I like Janette's comment. As a sociologist by training and work experience, I took several classes on stratification, which is what we pros call the study of class. There are two schools of thought.

One is Marxist and largely is the basis of leftist definitions of class. You are either proletariat or bourgeosie. This means you are either an owner and producer or a worker.

Workers are not middle class generally, they are not the owners of the means of production.

The other system of defining stratification is based on the augmetation of Marxist theory from Weber. (Weber was the darling of the haves of the Gilded Age BTW). In this definition, a middle class is recognized and it consists of those who are professionals and small business people...doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians? To the extent these professinals work for someone else they are either workers or not. i.e. doctors who own a practice or medical facility for example are different from those who do not.

A third attempt to identify class arose from the writing of Talcott Parsons and is based on culture. In this, class is identified by income, education, occupation. Given the rise of so many people who now work in knowledge jobs, this definition has fallen by the waysid a bit.

For me, class is based on degrees of freedom. Most folks are tied to a job in some form and not independently wealthy, i.e. have trust funds, own stocks, bonds, etc.

I don't read Kay's blog as she is a bit too far to the left for me, but Rubio does indeed have working class roots. His mother was a maid and his father a bar tender. He may have been educated and become a politician, but he is not middle class yet. It takes several generations to escape the socialization you receive from your parents.

I am super-educated and worked as a statistician, but nevertheless, I worked for someone else all my life and needed the income to live. Ditto my parents and my kids. David's grandfather was a lawyer, and his father had a white-collar job with the RR. David was an engineer with AT&T. Given his income he might think he is middle class, and his education would indicate so, but David's mother was a white Russian emigre, and her class was totally destroyed by the Bolsheveks. This puts him in a different place althogether. When someone wants to kill you you think about these things long and hard.


Snowbrush said...

SS averages but 15-grand a year, yet the Republicans want to reduce benefits! Whoa!

Tom said...

So Dianne, are you saying you have to be independently wealthy, and not need to work, to be considered middle class? That seems like a high bar to me, more like the definition of upper class. Anyway, Kay is left of me, too, but I like her blog.

Snowbrush, SS was never meant to offer us a comfortable, middle class lifestyle; just to keep us out of poverty. Does it do that? I dunno. SS pays just about the same as minimum wage -- is that by accident or design?

stephen Hayes said...

Based on earnings we're in the poverty section but we still have Middle Class values."

Kay Dennison said...

Wow!! It's interesting to see your findings. I'm not middle class anymore as my SS is not high. I stayed home and was a mommy & I'm glad I did. Here in Ohio we've had lots of plant closings and downsizing so good jobs are hard to come by for anyone. Even the fast food chains don't have many openings anymore.

And oh yeah, someone called Anonymous left me a nastygram about my being trash on my blog. I don't publish such comments. Fortunately, that doesn't happen very often.

And yeah, I was raised in a blue collar union family and my mom's folks were immigrants from Germany. My paternal grandparents were very hardworking people who had very middle class values.

That said, I do tend to be a liberal. I have a B.A. and hours toward an M.A. and at this late date I probably won't finish it.

Douglas said...

I agree, Tom, "middle class" is more a state of mind than an actual economic status. I was raised for the first 9 1/2 years in a "working class" home though my father owned a business (a bicycle shop) which barely paid the mortgages and put food on the table. And there are strata to each class (upper and lower middle class, for example, and now the rich, the wealthy, and the "1%"). But I have always liked the tongue-in-cheek definition of rich... "anyone earning $1 more than me."

The question I have is "when did we start hating success instead of admiring it?"

schmidleysscribblins, said...

I don't think I am defining middle class. I merely suggested there are mulitiple theories about what it is. I think middle class was more accurately defined 50-100 years ago when we had a real working class. Today the line between the two seems to be

I worked on a PhD in Sociology at UMaryland, and got good Marx. However, I like Weber better than Marx because he acknowleded there was something other than bourgeosie and working class...a middle class composed of professionals, something Marx failed to do. Professionals only came into existence in the nineteeth century. Before that most folks did everything (like medicine) for themselves.

As for reading. I get around and read many liberal publications...books and mags. Don't need to read political stuff in blogs where I look for something else altogether.

I think too many folks get their political insights from reading junk mail (like the right-wing stuff my sister sends me) and blogs that lean left or right. One thing a liberal education teaches is how to think critically, i.e. look at contrasting viewpoints with an open mind. I like your blog because I think you are truly a moderate.

GMU where I just completed my second MA in history has a good program where we read many perspectives (social, cultural, etc.) and did much comparing and remember that from your work on an English degree?


Vagabonde said...

I saw your comment on Kay’s blog and came for a visit. I enjoyed your post and the comments you receive. I think that middle class, in America that is, is also a state of mind and that it changes with the culture. I heard in PBS that the US population is split into 5 groups financially, so the middle class would be those making between $38,500 and $63,000.

But many people define themselves by culture and class rather than income. Now, in my other country, France, (I have dual citizenship) a major portion of the population considers themselves middle class – at last reading that was 80% - but then there are not so many people who are dirt poor like here because of more social programs and there is free education and free healthcare – a lot more people go on vacation than here, which is one of the points that shows if people are middle class. But then again, more European people are middle class than here now that it has been shown that the US is no longer the country were people get ahead faster.
To me, education has a lot to do with it, and what type of education - for example here there are more “home schooled” kids who don’t follow a universal curriculum, or specialized right wing universities or religious colleges who specialized in their educational views. When I wanted to send my daughters to study in France I was told that coming from the US they would have to take 2 years remedial – and for the state of Montreal in Canada it was one year remedial. I also find in this country a lot of hostility between the conservatives and liberals – so how can they agree on the term “middle class” and define it when they can’t agree on much and don’t even talk to each other…

Dick Klade said...

I side with those who think "middle class" primarily is a state of mind, at least in the U.S. My parents considered themselves middle class because my father owned a business and mother did not have to work outside the home. Yet we never had a family car while I was growing up, and they didn't have enough spare cash to finish the house they started to build when they married. We had dignity, however. Mother was the leader of her church for 20 years and served on the school board for longer than that. Dad was on the Fire and Police Commission and considered himself among the civic leaders.

Through all those years, my parents' income would have been well below any artificial poverty line established by government.

Anonymous said...

I am curious how you, TS, made the leap from Kay's "working class" description to a discussion of "middle class"? I believe that most people ( least some of us over-educated engineers - shall I, too, flaunt my degrees and uncompleted doctoral work?) in the USA equate "working class" with "blue collar" which in turn is equated to "lower middle class". Somehow, IMHO, the photo of the house that Kay posted (I made no check for authenticity) does not reflect the house that Mr Rubio could have grown up in were his parents truly "working class".
Cop Car

b+ (Retire In Style Blog) said...

I thought your statement "There's a cultural aspect to middle class that involves work, education, family, community." hit the nail on the head. The group that we feel most comfortable with is the group we will identify with no matter our income.

Good thought for today!


Oh, and I might add that I think Cop Car got up on the wrong side of the bed. WOW!

Douglas said...

@Anonymous, Rubio never claimed to be living in the house in which he grew up, he said "neighborhood", which is quite possible. It's disingenuous to misquote and then denigrate something based on the misquote.

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