Bleg: What do we mean when we mean middle class?

Erik Loomis has a post at LGM titled “The Politics of Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class.”

Angaleena Presley is a country single and American Middle Class is the name of her latest album. Loomis starts the essay by writing: “Yet even if much of what comes out of Nashville is bad, perhaps no cultural form provides a better window into the state of the white working and middle classes than country music.” He describes Presley’s album as: “Angaleena Presley’s excellent 2014 album American Middle Class suggests the complexity of how country music politics represent the limits of white political consciousness. How often do we see an album of any genre dedicated to dissecting class in any conscious way? Very rarely. So from a political perspective, this is already interesting. Songs like “Pain Pills,” “Grocery Store,” and “Knocked Up” tell well-crafted stories about the white working class that show great sympathy and sensitivity for everyday people. But that her album is titled American Middle Class and not “American Working Class” says a great deal, for not even Presley can escape the divisive politics that undermine class solidarity in the United States.”

Like Loomis, this is a question that has always puzzled me in American politics. What do we mean when we talk about middle class?” I have seen numerous articles about the decline of middle class American life. This article from the Washington Post is typical of the genre. The articles more often than not are about the decline of well-paying jobs for manual laborers, usually unskilled and semi-skilled manual laborers. Lots of Boomers talking about how they graduated from high school, got a job and their union card on the following day and purchased a car. Is there any other country or time when a factory worker (or a coal-miner) has been considered Middle Class? In the UK, the coal miners and factory workers considered themselves working class and were largely opposed to Margaret Thatcher in the UK.

So Hivemind, what characteristics make someone middle-class or not? Is it income? occupation? geography? education-level? hobbies and interests? all of the above?

I grew up Jewish in suburban New York. I don’t really relate or listen to country music. So by the Loomis description, I am not part of the white middle class. Yet others would argue that Jewish-Americans like other Southern and Eastern European ethnics were folded into the white majority in the 1960s. The classic frustrated joke Republicans used to tell about Jews was that Jews “earned like Episcopalians but voted like Puerto Ricans.” I suppose being from the New York would be seen as a dock against being American middle class because New York seems to be in a category unto itself in American socio-cultural politics.

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18 thoughts on “Bleg: What do we mean when we mean middle class?

  1. I think ‘middle class’ is the American dream — the house with the white picket fence where you host Thanksgiving dinner and trick-or-treaters. Most Americans, no matter where they are on the income distribution, think they’re ‘middle class.’

    It’s not a demographic, it’s a dream.

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  2. My take is that “middle class” is roughly the 50% to 150% of the median income for a given area.
    This differs from true distinctions of class consciousness. The term isn’t used like that.

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  3. Employment stability. So many working class Americans believed (and were) in the middle class in the 1950s and 1960s because they got employment stability after the war. The growth in two-income households was as much about maintaining employment stability as about increased income. Take away employment stability and you’re working class, no matter what your hourly billing rate is.

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    • My take on it is similar. You’re middle class if losing your job wouldn’t have out living on the streets inside of a month.

      Middle class means having a cushion against catastrophe. It means making enough to save a bit. It means a broken car or a busted water pipe won’t mean you don’t eat for two weeks.

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      • Along similar lines, I’d like at savings and assets. Perhaps instead of income, we consider net worth. Many people have a negative net worth. And some people have an astronomical net worth. Perhaps folks in between that are ‘middle class’. Folks who maintain a savings account for emergencies.

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        • a lot of the people with negative net worth, though, are college students or young college graduates.

          I’d be pretty hesitant to say a new doctor or engineer doesn’t count as middle class just because they haven’t paid off their student loans.

          I propose the following:
          If you’re paid hourly, you’re working class
          If you’re paid a salary, you’re middle class
          If you don’t give a shit what you’re paid because your income comes from invested capital, you’re upper class

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          • I also think your rubric is a bit outdated because of political and social changes.

            A lot of positions that used to be hourly have become more and more salaried like being a paralegal. There are lots of places that try to define positions as salaried instead of hourly because it means that they can pay less and get more hours. A big part of wage and hour litigation is when corporations try to over define their retail staff as assistant store managers or store managers even though they are basically just retail staff. There is a lot of bogus title giving to make positions FSLA exempt.

            As a contract/freelance lawyer, I often get paid an hourly wage. The hourly wage is pretty high but I am also entitled to overtime. So I made more overall than their 23-25 year old salaried paralegals and their non-college educated litigation secretaries (probably) but the paralegals got other benefits like insurance and PTO.

            So these things are tough to determine.

            The fact is that solidarity is probably just as much about culture and upbringing than anything else. Imagine a person who works in food service but is college (and perhaps grad school educated) and trying to make it in the arts. Are they working class or does their education and ultimate (if possibly futile) desire place them somewhere else. Friends of mine are actors but also work as real estate agents or paralegals. How are they different than people who never attended college but got a real estate or paralegal license via vocational school and how are they different from someone who is just being a paralegal for a year or two after college to see how they like the legal industry before law school or business school?

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            • Well, this is the problem with conflating someone’s financial standing with other definitions of “class”. If two cashiers work at McDs, bring home the same wages, but one wants to be a musician and the other is content to work his way up the McDs ladder, why should we think of them as different from an economic perspective? They are identical in that regard, at least currently. They both have the same earning power, financial stability, etc.

              The hourly/salary distinction is a good starting point because it taps into stability and predictability. Even if you earn more in a given year than a salaried lawyer, that money isn’t guaranteed. Technically, neither is the salaried employees as he could be fired, but there is more stability in his situation because he is bringing home a predictable wage. Even hourly employees who work a regular schedule will see their pay dip if they are sick for a couple of days or take a day off to attend a chid’s school event.

              So there is something to be said for nothing which folks are the type who have to worry about taking a day off and which are not. You can then separate the middle from the top based on which have to worry about taking a month off and which don’t, as doing so will get most middle class salaried employees canned while those at the top are usually the ones making the decision.

              This is why I struggle with the term “socio-economic status”. Are we discussing economics? Or social standing and culture and all that stuff?

              You can be upper class because you make a gazillion dollars. Or because you know which fork to use. But those things are not one in the same and matter for every different things.

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      • This implies that middle class is less about income &/or education & more about fiscal discipline.

        I’ve known guys who were making a lot more than me and still living paycheck to paycheck because they just had to have X.

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  4. American class distinctions got mumbled in the long period of prosperity between 1945 and 1979. When you combine this with socialism being a dirty word in American politics, talking about class and class distinctions is really difficult. Currently middle class means anybody who isn’t poor but still needs to work for a living. It covers everybody from factory workers to Harvard trained lawyers making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The key indicators like said is some type of economic stability including housing, food, transportation, and consumer electronics. Ideally middle class people with kids should live in single family homes rather than apartment buildings and own at least one car.

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  5. So Hivemind, what characteristics make someone middle-class or not? Is it income? occupation? geography? education-level? hobbies and interests? all of the above?

    Oh my, only 7 comments (to this point), and they seem to have covered most of this question, except for “geography,” by which I guess the answer is “obvious” to certain people who grew up in certain parts of the country and with certain advantages (the South is suspect, and so is the South Side of Chicago).

    I agree with Lee’s claim that “[c]urrently middle class means anybody who isn’t poor but still needs to work for a living. It covers everybody from factory workers to Harvard trained lawyers making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year,” or as I might put it, “anybody who’s not super rich or super poor.” I also agree with the others, like Michael Cain, who point to job/economic stability

    Sigh. This is one of the points where my late Marxism kicks in and I’m in (very) reluctant agreement (albeit partial agreement) with Mr. Loomis. To me, class identity is something as among a spectrum, with a number of attributes that determine where you (or I) are on the spectrum. Each attribute is weighted differently, but the general gist is if enough attributes mark you as of one class than another, then you’re probably of that class, more so than of another. Here’s my rough list of attributes, the first attribute in each example being more “working class,” the second being more “middle class,” and the third being more “upper class.”

    1. Manual labor vs. non-manual labor vs. labor that requires a professional credential (e.g., J.D., PHD [ugh!], MD, MSW, MBA, etc.)

    2. “Low” income vs. “medium” income vs. “high” income, for whatever value of “low,” “medium,” or “high” you prefer.

    3. Very little job security (temp work, or contingent work, or low waged “unskilled” work); more or less “permanent” employment (by which I mean “employed indefinitely but with an understanding that if a layoff happens, it’ll be a real departure for the employer); very stable job, either because the skills are in high demand or because the job entails so many connections that it’s easy to find another job within the same skillset.

    4. [speaking of connections] Jobs are acquired through going to the employer and filling out an application, perhaps with a notice from a friend/family member that such and such a business is hiring; jobs are acquired because a friend knows of a specific opening and alerts you before the employer advertises the job generally (perhaps the friend puts in a good word); jobs are acquired almost exclusively because the friend puts in a good word or because you have the formal credentials.

    5. High school education or perhaps an AA or BA; BA or perhaps an MA or JD or MBA or MSW; MA or JD or perhaps a PHD.

    6. Eating out is a special night reserved for someplace like McDonalds, or maybe Chipotle; eating out at some place like McDonalds or Chipotle is a regular lunchtime thing, but once a week or maybe every other week, an “out” dinner is at Applebees or maybe even Outback; eating out at a sit-down place is a regular lunchtime thing and a sitdown dinner at a fancy non-chain place at least once a week.

    7. Maybe 1 (but perhaps none) 401(k)’s or IRA’s, with little or no inheritance; a 401(k) or 403(b) or IRA, maybe more than one IRA, with an inheritance of the 10’s of thousands of dollars, maybe (on the upper echelons); trust funds that pay for college a or others.

    8. At 25, if still living with parents, has to contribute to rent; if still living with parents, can stay there without contributing to rent; if living with parents, gets an offer by parents that they’ll pay/subsidize the rent for an apartment if the 25-year-old moves out.

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  6. Well, that’s a tough one, since the idea of the middle class has a mythology attached to it, seems to me. Once upon a time the middle class was made up of people who owned some stuff, maybe a piece of dirt to farm or a shop to provide services to folks, still working stiffs but folks who made some profit. You know, conceptually in the middle between two economic extremes out on the ends. Nowadays, the concept is pegged to income levels and I have to admit I’m right there with Hanley (back when he railed about this stuff here at the OT) that that metric just doesn’t capture (without begging questions!) what the concept is intended to reveal.

    So, long story short, I think the concept isn’t very useful anymore since it confusingly and unhelpfully mixes an older connotation with a radically different contemporary metric. I think we need some new terms to effectively talk about current economic dynamics, myself.

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    • I wasn’t around (I think) but I have read Likko’s essay numerous times and it is one of the greats.

      I mentioned it to Alan Scott above but I think recreation and aesthetics have a lot to do with class divisions in the United States. More so than income perhaps.

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  7. Once upon a time, the middle class was something that lower class families could aspire to (and middle class families themselves could aspire out of) and, once they got there, there were enough supports and tricks that they could mostly expect to stay there while, at the same time, daydreaming about leaving the middle class (or their kids leaving the middle class) for the upper classes.

    A nice place to live, a nice place to visit on the way to living somewhere else.

    I think that as society put less of an emphasis on families and more of an emphasis on the individual, the concept of “middle class” similarly disappeared.

    A single guy? That’s not middle class. A single guy with a life partner? Now you’re getting somewhere… a married couple with 2.1 kids? Now we can meaningfully discuss the middle class.

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