Are You in the Middle Class?

The other day I took the opportunity to enter a comment, at a business blog, that alluded in passing to my favorite conspiracy theory; to wit: over the past two or three decades, we have been watching the deliberate erosion of the American middle class.

Don’t believe it? Well, skepticism is healthy.

But consider…

If you can’t get access to affordable medical care (exorbitant insurance premiums do not qualify as “affordable”), you’re not in the middle class, certainly not by the standards of any other developed country.

If your access to health-care services and to a health care provider of  your choice is limited, you’re not in the middle class.

If the quality of education in your local public schools is so poor that you have seriously entertained the possibility of homeschooling—not for religious reasons but because you’re concerned for your kids’ literacy, their safety, or both and you can’t afford private school—you’re not in the middle class.

If you counsel your children to get a vocational diploma in college instead of a full education that will inform them of the history and significance of their culture because you’re afraid their bachelor’s degree will qualify them to stock the shelves at Borders, you and they are not in the middle class.

If you’re not on track or ahead of schedule to accumulate enough savings to live on through your old age without benefit of Social Security, you are not in the middle class.

If your house is worth less than you’re paying for it, you’re not in the middle class.

If you’re driving a clunk because you can’t afford to buy a newer car now, you’re not in the middle class.

If you buy your clothes at Goodwill less for the entertainment value than because you feel you shouldn’t spend the money on new clothing, you’re not in the middle class.

If you were to lose your job tomorrow and you know the likelihood of replacing it with a job that pays about the same is low to nil, you’re barely clinging to the middle class.

If jobs in your industry are increasingly being outsourced to Indonesia and waypoints, you won’t be in the middle class much longer.

If the real reason you wear your hair down around your shoulders is less because that you like it that way than because you feel you can’t afford to go to a stylist once every four to eight weeks, you’re not in the middle class.

If you would rather use department-store cosmetics but you get your makeup at the drugstore because you cringe at paying department-store prices (though you happen to know there’s no real difference), you’re not in the middle class.

If what you do for a living is a dying vocation (and there’s more!), you’re not long for the middle class.

If you live in a big coastal city and you don’t earn a six-figure income, you’re not in the middle class.

If you live anywhere else and earn less than $40,000 or $50,000 (depending on the region), you’re not in the middle class.

If you are the breadwinner in your house and you earn what a typical teacher earns, you’re not in the middle class.

If you and your spouse or partner depend on both your incomes to maintain a middle-class standard of living for your household, you as individuals are not in the middle class (check out the book from which this article was spun).

If your spouse or partner earns enough to maintain your household in middle-class splendor while you earn pocket money, your companion is in the middle class and you’re not.

Still think you’re living in the middle class? Or even in Kansas, Toto?

It’s hard to deny that our country is polarizing economically as radically as it has polarized politically. I personally don’t think it’s an accident. We could argue over conspiracy theory and over the reasons and the fixes until we’re all carted off from the poorhouse and delivered to the nursing home. But there it is. IMHO it has little to do with technology and nothing to do with the recession. There’s been more to this than has met the eye…for quite a long time.

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E. Murphy October 18, 2010 at 9:59 am

Don’t leave us in suspense…….tell us who the bad guys are?

funny October 18, 2010 at 10:06 am

@ E. Murphy: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

E. Murphy October 18, 2010 at 11:18 am

Doesn’t a Conspiracy Theory have to have someone oppressing someone else?

funny October 18, 2010 at 11:43 am

@ E. Murphy: Oh, you mean who are the conspirators? Well, I think a fellow named Jeff Sharet comes pretty close to identifying them in his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. This particular group is no theory. Its existence has been confirmed by others and its agenda is now not a secret, either.

These folks are funded by hugely monied interests that will benefit by…

* suppressing wages in this country;
* offshoring jobs;
* keeping taxes on corporations and on wealthy individuals low or nonexistent;
* minimizing healthcare coverage;
* shifting costs for the hallmark characteristics of a civil society to the poor and the middle-income through privatization, and fee-based government services, and by instituting regressive taxation measures;
* minimizing the size of government and, to the extent possible, eliminating government services.
* dumbing down the schools so as to create a dumbed-down electorate receptive to demagoguery — indeed, incapable of recognizing it, ignorant of their country’s history (especially recent history), ignorant of the meaning of little details like the U.S. Constitution, incapable of recognizing what is and is not in their best interest, and vulnerable to manipulation;
* taking over what little remains of the nation’s news media and converting it to a propaganda machine;
* building a “service” economy with an underpaid workforce;
* creating circular economies such as those that have grown (and collapsed) in Arizona and Nevada, where little is produced and the economy consists solely of serving people who serve other people and of building houses for people who produce little or nothing;
* building a debt-based consumer economy;
* crippling union representation;
* eliminating legal aid for the poor…

One could go on. There are those for whom the demise of the middle class will be a good thing. Workers who think they should remain in the middle class, after all, are expensive.

Deflating dreams since 2010 October 18, 2010 at 4:12 pm

I do enjoy your writing voice and perspective, but this is not one of my favorite pieces–it smacks a little too much of paranoia, rhetoric, and hyperbole. One of the biggest problems is that one must first define middle class satisfactorily, far harder than it sounds. If we go with a definition such as “middle class = enough income to pay for all needs and at least a few wants”, then there are largeish holes in several of your bullet points. F’rexample, I can’t agree with the ability to send one’s child to private school being a necessary condition of being middle class; nor can I let the health care provider of one’s choice go by without pointing out that Madonna’s plastic surgeon is, alas, just not available to me (I don’t believe one gets much choice in the English NHS system either). Further, I don’t really see what paying more for one’s house than it’s worth has to do with being middle-class–poor investment timing is found across all social barriers. Whether to go for a vocational diploma over a liberal arts degree is going to depend a great deal on the student; some simply aren’t prepared or perhaps qualified to study the material that you find so important.

I think the bigger issue is fairly widespread poor decision-making, and difficulty prioritizing needs over wants. I’d say department-store-counter makeup is a want rather than a need by nearly anyone’s middle-class standards, and one could argue the same for monthly hair stylings. On a wider scale, in many cases the reason one can’t afford a newer car may be because of that shiny cell phone contract, from having defaulted on other bills and being unable to access the best interest rates on an auto loan, or in general from having already indulged too much on too many other wants when an unexpected need pops up. Perhaps “middle class” is really less about the money and more about the spending choices you make given a reasonable amount of the stuff?

I don’t mean to pooh-pooh your thesis entirely; I think there is certainly an argument to be made here about how much harder it is to be and remain in the middle class. Sadly, to me the post comes off as propaganda, which is rarely persuasive to anyone who’s not already of like mind.

frugalscholar October 18, 2010 at 7:29 pm

I wonder if buying too much junk (like dept store cosmetics) helped get people in the pickle they/we are in.

Most people in this country would be w/out affordable health insurance if they lost their jobs. So by that measure, few are middle class, where everyone in, say, France is.

funny October 18, 2010 at 7:58 pm

@ Deflating Dreams: Here’s our problem: No one on either side of the liberal/conservative divide can hear anyone on the other side. That you respond to my message as “propaganda” is as much a symptom of that as my response to Fox News as “propaganda.”

The point of the private school remark is that if your local public schools are inadequate and you can’t afford to send your kids to private schools, then you have no choice but to put your kids in inadequate schools. Some of us can remember when a safe local school that educated kids reasonably well was a hallmark of a middle-class neighborhood and, unfairly enough, inadequate schools were a hallmark of lower-income neighborhoods. Not having access to a decent public school effectively puts you — or, more specifically, your children — out of the middle class, unless you happen to be able to afford public schools.

When you are paying more for your house than it’s worth, you are losing money hand over fist. You’re not buying a house: you’re renting it from a lender, who, it develops, is all too often quite the rapacious absentee landlord. As you lose capital, you steadily are impoverished. As you are impoverished, your socioeconomic status slips.

While it’s easy for a younger woman or a man to imagine that all women can go without regular hair styling, as one ages one either maintains one’s appearance or one begins to look like poor white trash (assuming one possesses the appropriate degree of pallor, of course). A middle-aged woman who shows up in the office with blunt-cut hair (that she cut off herself with the aid of a mirror that sort of showed the back of her head) looks unprofessional, to say the least. If you are to obtain and keep a decent job, you have to look professional. For the same reason a man would appear at the office in a suit from, at the least, a department store rather than from a WalMart, a woman has to show up on the job properly groomed. She needs to show up everywhere else properly groomed, too. I personally can attest to the difference in attitude an older woman receives when she appears in public with shoulder-length hair (whether or not she wears it up) and when, just a few days later, she appears in the same venues wearing a stylish short haircut. You know it when counter clerks and cashiers are dismissing you like poor white trash, and you notice when they suddenly begin treating you respectfully.

Whether or not one gets choice in the British NHS is irrelevant to the situation in the U.S. The point is that middle-class Americans were, long before our present “managed care” system came on the scene, accustomed to seeing doctors when they needed to see doctors, and to seeing the doctor of their choice, not one assigned to them by some bureaucrat. Poor folks went to clinics. Now we all go to clinics (they’re called “HMO’s”), unless we have fistfuls of money. Sometimes even money will not buy you decent medical care — I can attest to that, too, if you’d like to read a story as long as another blog post.

Few people default on purpose. Few people deliberately make bad financial decisions. Who besides a very few insiders, knew the economy was going to collapse into a full-blown depression? Many whose homes were purchased before the bubble began to inflate find themselves with property not worth what they paid for it. My house, for example, is paid off; today it is worth what I paid for a similar house in the same subdivision twenty years ago. Though I’m lucky not to be paying a mortgage on a house worth 70 percent of what I paid for it, and though I know, yes, that you don’t realize a loss until you sell, the fact still remains that the loss in equity represents an impoverishment to the tune of $50,000 or more…decidedly not the result of a “poor” decision.

And who would have known that people with college degrees, some even with professional degrees, would find themselves competing with workers in countries where $2 a day is a good wage? Who would have thought that an educated young person or a skilled tradesman could not earn much more than minimum wage? And who would have imagined that an entire generation of young people would see themselves slide out of the middle class to join the working poor, no matter what their qualifications, skills, and training?

It’s easy to see “poor decisions” in hindsight. But to imagine that people should have recognized them as such in the heat of the moment is nothing short of arrogance. No offense…just sayin’.

SimplyForties October 18, 2010 at 8:44 pm

I know I was raised in an upper-middle class family and my parents are still there but I, I’m afraid, have slid woefully downward. Sad but true (or I guess it’s sad).

Deflating dreams since 2010 October 19, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Hm, there’s a lot of things I could say in response here (and won’t, because I’m not actually trying to hijack your blog or get labeled a troll). What I am trying primarily to say is that, while I agree with some of your bullet points (including the entirely broken state of health care and public education, even the necessity of regular haircuts), to me several of them are far from self-explanatory, and in fact unreasonable (sorry, I still think it’s entirely ridiculous that having one’s house lose rather than gain value should definitively exclude one from the middle class. Also, in my world, the definition of middle-class involves having to prioritize wants, e.g. department-store makeup, and does not distinguish between the halves of a happily-married couple…the latter is not a sour-grapes sort of opinion, FWIW) Thus, at this point in the game, I as the reader no longer take your thesis seriously because it seems to be based on flawed information.

Which is a shame, because I agree that it’s harder and harder to find middle-class level head-of-household jobs, and the requirements for some basic dead-end jobs are absurd. I don’t, however, tend to look farther than the natural profit-maximizing tendencies of businesses, and perhaps overly permissive laws/tax policies. And I do wonder about a couple of things: how much you’re influenced by your surroundings, since I think your area is significantly more depressed than even the median right now; and why the individual worker doesn’t bear at least some responsibility for observing trends and staying relevant to the workplace (c.f. Fabulously Broke earlier week).

Thanks for the food for thought.

funny October 20, 2010 at 7:09 am

@ Deflating Dreams: Sorry if you’re disappointed. ;-) But you know, we pessimists are usually happier than optimists…when things turn out worse than expected, it confirms our deepest beliefs; when they turn out better than expected, we’re pleasantly surprised.

Nothing in a blog post tossed off in under an hour is intended to be scholarly or definitive. The links I included were intended to support what I suggest, which is that the middle class in the United States is going away, something indicated by a variety of factors one or more of which most of us are personally familiar with. Obviously, one is privileged to decide for oneself whether any of those sources holds water.

Holly October 22, 2010 at 6:49 am

I see your perspective clearly, Funny. There is something ‘funny’ going on in Washington when you watch the news (i.e. abc, last night) and see U.S. companies funneling their profits to Bermuda to avoid paying the billions in U.S. taxes they would owe. That’s simply robbing our pockets so that the above-the-law politicians and fat cats can eat surf and turf.

I think Obama is doing all he can to stand up to the machine, but the dumb electorate will send him packing simply because he doesn’t stoop to their level. I do not know your political stance and I hope I am not offending your readers…it’s just a shame that we, The People, have no control over our future as a nation. Where’s the equality?

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