One of the odd things about the United States has long been the immense range of people who consider themselves to be middle class – and are deluding themselves. Low-paid workers who would be considered poor by international standards, say with incomes below half the median, nonetheless consider themselves lower-middle-class; people with incomes four or five times the median consider themselves, at most, upper-middle-class.
But this may be changing. According to a new Pew survey, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people calling themselves lower class, and a somewhat smaller rise in the number calling themselves lower-middle, so that at this point the combined “lower” categories are close to a plurality of the population – in fact, closing in on, um, 47 percent.
This is, I believe, a very significant development. The politics of poverty since the 1970s have rested on the popular belief that the poor are Those People, not like us hard-working, real Americans. This belief has been out of touch with reality for decades – but only now does reality seem to be breaking in. But what it means is that conservatives who claim that character defects are the reason for poverty, and that poverty programs are bad because they make life too easy, are now talking to an audience with large numbers of Not Those People who realize that they are among those who sometimes need help from the safety net.
And this still has a way to go. To Americans at the 86th percentile: If you think you’re upper-middle-class, you really have no idea.
Money and Class
My argument above has triggered some predictable reactions, which I’d place under two headings: (1) “But they have cellphones!” and (2) it’s about how you behave, not how much money you have.
My answer to both of these would be to say that when we talk about being middle-class, we have two crucial attributes of that status in mind: security and opportunity.
By security, I mean that you have enough resources and backup that the ordinary emergencies of life won’t plunge you into the abyss. This means having decent health insurance, reasonably stable employment and enough financial assets that having to replace your car or your boiler isn’t a crisis.
By opportunity I mainly mean being able to get your children a good education and access to job prospects, not feeling that doors are shut because you just can’t afford to do the right thing.
If you don’t have these things, I would say that you don’t lead a middle-class life, even if you have a car and a few electronic gadgets that weren’t around during the era when most Americans really were middle-class, and no matter how clean, sober and prudent your behavior may be.
Now, according to that Pew survey (it can be found here), in early 2008 only 6 percent of Americans considered themselves lower-class – far below the official poverty rate! – only 2 percent upper-class and 1 percent didn’t know. So 91 percent of Americans – roughly speaking, people with incomes between $15,000 and $250,000 – considered themselves middle-class. And a large portion of these people were wrong.
Consider health insurance: Many Americans with incomes significantly above the poverty line are or were until very recently uninsured, and many more were at risk of losing coverage.
That, to me, says that they weren’t middle-class on that basis alone. Many, probably most, low-wage workers have hardly any financial assets, no retirement plan, etc.
What about opportunity? Public schools in America vary widely in quality, and lower-income families can’t afford to live in good districts. College education has become far less accessible as aid to public institutions falls. The likelihood of finishing college varies drastically with family income.
I could go on, but surely it’s obvious when you think about it (and if you have any sense of the realities of life). A lot of Americans – quite arguably a majority – just don’t have the prerequisites for middle-class life as we’ve always understood it.
The point is that we could, if we chose, guarantee the essentials of middle-class existence for almost all Americans; other advanced countries do it. Universal health care is the norm; we’re finally making a partial move toward that norm, but the right is fighting that move hysterically. Universal good basic education and free or cheap college education are available in other advanced countries.
The sad thing is that our fetishization of the middle class, our pretense that we’re almost all members of that class, is a major reason so many of us actually aren’t. That’s why the growing appreciation of class realities on the part of the public is a good thing; it raises the chances that we’ll actually start creating the kind of society we only pretend to have.