February 22, 2020

Who Counts as Middle Class?

“The other day, The New York Times released a collection of first-person testimonials, entitled “What Middle-Class Families Want Politicians to Know.” There was a hiccup though: Nearly everyone included in the piece was making over six figures. In a country where half of all households make less than $60,000 a year, it was an odd way to define “middle class.” This certainly tells us something about the socioeconomic blinders of the Times. But there is another worthwhile lesson about the nature of American inequality buried in the episode.

The term “middle class” has always been one of the watchwords in American politics. Look no further than “Middle-class Joe.” But a lot of times when it’s cited, the implied definition seems to be more experiential than statistical: A sense that what you have is good, but that you also struggle; what you have isn’t secure, and if you start falling there just won’t be any bottom. If we define “middle class” in this way, it suggests the Times interviewees — if still not representing the median “middle-class” person — arguably should be included under the umbrella.

Consider Jessica Wang, whose family makes $150,000 a year in San Francisco: “We cannot buy a home here, our cars are both over 10 years old, and we don’t eat out more than a couple of times per month. We have a college fund for our son, but no real savings.” Or the Dunhams of Minnesota, who make between $200,000 and $400,000, but also live under mountains of debt and work brutal hours: “Each of us lives in constant terror of falling asleep in a chair or behind the wheel or at the operating table and causing harm to someone or having something awful happen to our children because we couldn’t stay awake.””

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