(Christian Century) Steve Thorngate–Defining the middle: The rhetoric and reality of class

An Episcopal priest who, with her husband, brings in about $65,000 a year tells Marketplace that they are lower middle class. A woman posting at dcurbanmom.com identifies her family as middle class, and their income is $100,000 a year. CNN talks to a man struggling to save for his son’s education who defines “middle class” as families with too much to qualify for federal Pell Grants””which is at most about $48,000 for a family of three. I was eligible for Pell Grants, and before that for subsidized school lunches, but I’ve always understood my family of origin to be middle class.

A majority of Americans consider themselves middle class, a recent Pew survey found, despite a wide variance in their earnings. So what does “middle class” mean if it applies to most of the country? And if we are all middle class now, what are the political and cultural implications?

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Posted in * Culture-Watch, * Economics, Politics, * International News & Commentary, America/U.S.A., Budget, Economy, Globalization, Personal Finance, Politics in General, Psychology, Taxes, The National Deficit, The U.S. Government

5 comments on “(Christian Century) Steve Thorngate–Defining the middle: The rhetoric and reality of class

  1. Clueless says:

    While it is humerous to think that “middle class” is anybody making above $23,000 and below $250,000, it really depends, doesn’t it?

    Here in Arkansas, somebody who earns 23,000 working 9-5 and has no debt, can afford to live in a 2 bedroom house in a safe area that he bought for 40,000, and send his kids to good public schools. Or he could live in a comfortable well kept trailer on 20 acres, and grow part of his food, and hunt/freeze down deer for winter food.

    I think that person is “middle class” (particularly if he is either healthy, or if he has access to health insurance through his job.) If he retires on SSI, he will be able to continue his life style.

    If the same person lived in New York city or even in the outskirts of New York, he would be paying his entire salary in order to rent a small appartment that requires he take 3 buses to get to work, and requires that his children dodge drug lords on their way to lousy schools. That person is poor, not middle class.

    Actually if someone earned 250,000 and lived in New York City, he probably would leave the house at 6am and would return around 9pm (usual professional work schedule). For this he would clear about 125,000 after taxes, and would pay 60,000/year to live in a modest brownstone, while paying another 20-40,000 to send his children to private schools, while paying somebody to transport them home and to look after them until he came home. If that 250,000 dollar income came after he took on 100,000 in student loans, which also needs to be paid back, then that person is middle class, but not nearly as well off as the person earning 23,000 in Arkansas. Indeed he is working harder, enjoying life less, and living less well then people considered “poor” in Arkansas.

    The problem is cost of living, cost of working (including student loans or other initial capital required to get a job, transportation), taxes, and cost of insurance (health and transport). If you can lower your expenses, then you can be not just middle class but wealthy on a very small income. If your expenses are out of control (500,000 in student debt, while living in a high rent district working a job that requires somebody else to look after/educate your children) then you could be quite poor while making well over 500,000.

    Me I live in Arkansas. I consider myself wealthy beyond imagination, however I assure you that both political parties could consider me “merely” middle class.

  2. Archer_of_the_Forest says:

    I think the idea of the “middle class” and its allure is where Karl Marx’s ideology went wrong. He only saw in terms of poor and rich. I think most people would identify as middle class because they don’t want to appear as either bottom of the barrel or rich snobs.

  3. drummie says:

    Clueless, you don’t seem to be. You hit the nail on the head. My wife and I saw economic problems developing in 2005. We decided that since we would soon be living on fixed retirement income it was time to cut back expenses. We sold the house along with its well over $1000.00 per month payments and were able to realize the equity we had in it. We then moved in with oldest daughter while looking for other housing. We have three sons. One is a framing carpenter, one is a trim carpenter, the third does hardwood and cermic tile flooring. Both sons-in-law are brick masons. We found a mobile home that needed fixing up. We bought it and paid cash, stripped the inside and remodeled it. By having the built in construction skills we came out great. NO house payment, much lower taxes, much lower light bill, insurance and upkeep. We live a more relaxed life, are better off than we would have been keeping the house. There are no residential construction jobs in our area and our kids are having a rough time because of it. We have been able to help themn because we cut back on our expenses.

  4. Jim the Puritan says:

    Interesting, I would say that what I have seen in my lifetime is the substantial disappearance of the “middle class” and radical growth of the “upper lower class,” what my friends and I refer to as the “ghetto-ization” of America. We would measure “middle class” not by money but by cultural attitudes–thrift, hard work, community involvement, school involvement, focus on family, fidelity in marriage and other relationships, moderation in personal behavior. That is pretty much gone now, replaced by a dependency/entitlement mentality, selfishness as a virtue, intentional ignorance and ghetto values. Now you have your choice of Honey Boo Boo, the Kardashians, Housewives of Beverly Hills, or the Jersey Shore, all different manifestations of ghetto culture.

  5. Archer_of_the_Forest says:

    “Middle Class” is one of those squishy terms that can really mean anything to anyone. It has an allure that people want to identify with because of that vagueness. I know people that make probably over $200k a year who identify as “middle class” and people who make little over the poverty line that identify as “middle class.” The term is a great linguistic melting pot of a word that means virtually anything you want it to mean.