The Economist seems doubtful about the 91% of Americans who identify themselves as “middle class”. Not strictly middle-middle-class. The 91% number is the sum of people who consider themselves either lower-, plain old middle, or upper-middle class. Can this be so?
I’ll argue yes. Here’s why:
1. We really are that rich. As a nation. The trappings of wealth — quality electronics, barely-worn clothing, cute little decorative accents — can be had for little or no cost, just for the luck of being nearby when some richer person decides to upgrade. Thrift stores ship old clothing by the bale off to some other place to be dealt with, because no one in the US needs bother learn how to mend or make-over some outdated or worn garment. There comes a time when your nation is wealthy enough that bottom percentile brackets do not necessarily indicate poverty.
2. We really are that educated. Class is in part about education. I have to go back four generations to find an ancestor who has less than a high-school diploma. Unless you are fresh off the boat, these days everyone goes to high school. And if you don’t graduate your first go-through, you can go back and get a GED later. The Economist says that a college degree was the mark of middle class cultural identity. I disagree. Both sets of my grandparents were high-school-only, WWII-era young adults. A high school education alone, combined with job success, firmly launched them all from working-class to middle-class.
3. Income is different from class. I knew this when I was a kid: If you were a teacher, even though you didn’t make any money, you were definitely middle-class. It was your education and your line of work that made you qualify. I think teachers earn more now than they did then. But now I know an awful lot of people with college and graduate degrees who live at the poverty line, income-wise. If you choose a lousy-paying career-field, have a stay-at-home-parent, and enough kids, guess what? You get to be poor. Financially. But you’re still educated, well-spoken, able to navigate the world of the middle-class (often: upper-middle class) comfortably. In a survey about class (not income), you’d pick middle.
4. Income isn’t nothing. So say your formal education isn’t impressive, and your line of work is not so white-collar. If you make enough money to afford a comfortable home, put your kids through school, never have to worry about clothes or food, or medical care, and on top of all that you can buy yourself any number of little luxuries . . . how is that not middle? You aren’t poor, for sure. Maybe your origins and even your tastes run “working class” (though my experience is that once income is removed as a factor, tastes in food and drink vary independently of family of origin). But sooner or later you get too rich not be middle class.
5. The top is so very high. There’s this point on the salary scale where you just aren’t middle, income-wise. I’d hazard it’s somewhere around the $200k/year, thereabouts, less or more depending on your perspective and your life situation — though if you want to put the figure higher or lower, go ahead. It doesn’t matter. It’s this point, whatever it might be, where people (both writers at The Economist, and also the people who really are in the financial middle of the income distribution), start to laugh at you when you say you are merely “upper middle class”. And you are wondering why they are laughing. Because here’s what: You who are now rich know that a) you really aren’t that rich compared to the super-rich people, b) at any time your paycheck could dry up and you’d go back to being a normal person, c) you don’t have any of the trappings of upbringing and connection that rich people have, because you are, um, middle class. Your cultural identity sticks. You’re a son of the middle class who happens to have a lot of money right now. It is the exact same thing as the PhD living below the poverty line, only at the other end of the income spread. (He’s probably your brother. Literally.)
Anyway that’s my take. The Economist says you can’t talk about about class in America. I think it’s more like, there’s not a lot to say. We’re a vast middle. I would assume that 91% of us feel that way anyhow — that we belong to this giant cultural lump, bonded by the real hope of three-bedroom homes, shoe clutter, and free public high school education.
And in light of my perfect contentment living here deep amongst the middling-types, has anyone read Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Happy are the Poor? If yes, I’m keen to hear your thoughts.