Whither middle class
Here's a nice piece by Anat Shankar on the meaning of "middle class" in America and how the powers that be misappropriate the word in order to perpetuate inequality. The fact is that we are running in place to stay middle class, with more family members working and all of us working harder and longer for the same result:
“Middle class” remains our favored self-designation, although the percentage of Americans who select it fell from 53 percent in 2008 to 49 most recently, according to Pew Research. As a friend’s high-school teacher loved to say, “The great thing about America is that everyone can be middle class.” Good thing she wasn’t teaching math.
Cognitive science teaches us that we learn to make sense of the world by putting things into categories. From the simplistic (edible or not) to the sophisticated (possible spouse or casual fling) grouping elements is part and parcel of our processing. In order to determine what category something fits into and thus what it is, we often rely on considering what it is not. Sometimes, these designations are easy: A smart phone and a rotary dial both count as telephones. But categories of great social significance are subject to interpretation and change with the times. Is that boy “spirited” or “ADHD”? Labels, once stuck, can change perception and policy.
Not finding popular depictions of wealth and poverty similar to our own lived experiences, we determine we must be whatever’s left over. Picking “middle class” is easy enough to do because, again, the language doesn’t present much to go on in terms of what this label describes.
The remaining economic component for all of our class designations isn’t income but stuff you can buy. One common synonym for rich and poor is the haves and have-nots. But consumer goods once deemed luxuries, like cellular telephones and televisions, are now common possessions. This means that even as employers held tight to the gains our productivity generated by keeping real wages at 1970s levels, we sent women into the workforce, labored longer hours, and used new debt products to indenture our way to some happiness. Thus, our stand-in to signify class status – purchasing power – papers over the fact that by income, benefits, and lifestyle standards many of us had long left behind a middle-class existence, even as we clung to the moniker.
Peering behind the once iconic picket fence surrounding a house, we see what “middle class” used to mean. The mortgage was close to paid off; the car loan settled. This feat was accomplished on a single income that came with health care plus pension and enough for domestic vacations and college.
Today, we are left with mere symbols, but these turn out to muddle, not mark. Being in the middle class once guaranteed choices and life without fear that the unexpected would prove catastrophic. Now, this is far from the case. Politicians of all stripes will continue to claim allegiance to the middle class, but that’s just because they’re hoping we don’t notice it’s a brand without a product.
If middle class is a state of mind then what she points out there is what's changed: the feeling of security. I think many people are living in a high state of anxiety about being able to maintain what they have. That didn't used to be so. And it changes the fundamental deal implicit in the American Dream. It's impacting our culture and not in a good way.