Toward a definition of "middle class"

Anyone who looks at the United States today can see elements of a class society in the evening news—the 99 percenters camped in Zucotti Park vs. the top .01% of the wealthy with Wall Street bonuses, the inner city poor vs. the suburban middle class, workers with manufacturing jobs that went overseas, former corporate managers now working at fast-food franchises, homes lost by families who were promised no-down-payment mortgages, families in dying cities like Flint, Youngstown and Cape Coral.

Of the four broad classes—poor, working, middle, and owning—the most difficult to define is the middle class. Not surprising. The boundaries are the least clear. Class Action asserts that the vast majority (80-90%) of people in the United States identify in some way as “middle class.” Some of the wealthiest as well as some of the poorest people call themselves middle class. 

A hallmark of middle class identity is confusion. Who’s in, who’s out, what group do I belong to? Am I middle class? Surely not! 

Arguments run, “Maybe there is no such thing as ‘class’ in U.S. society, leave that to the English with their nobility, or the [South] Indians with their caste system. We don’t have a class society here in the good ‘ol US of A.” — “Oh, yes, there is class in America. Look at all the poor folks and the rich. But class doesn’t affect me. I’m outside of it and don’t participate.”

Confusion reigns because there is no commonly-accepted definition of middle class. For some it’s the American Dream, aspiring to upward mobility, a house, a white collar job. For others middle-class is a fall from grace. It’s in the middle between wealth and poverty.

In 2005 the New York Times wrote a three-week series on Class in America. 

“[Class] means different things to different people. Class is rank, it is tribe, it is culture and taste. It is attitudes and assumptions, a source of identity, a system of exclusion. To some, it  is just money. It is an accident of birth that can influence the outcome of a life. Some Americans barely notice it; others feel its weight in powerful ways.” -Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, “Class in America,” NYTimes, 5/15/05

In order to define “class” and “middle class,” I am beginning with two dictionary contributions. 

A class occupying a position between the upper class and the lower class; especially : a fluid heterogeneous socioeconomic grouping composed principally of business and professional people, bureaucrats, and some farmers and skilled workers sharing common social characteristics and values. Merriam-Webster 

Values commonly associated with the middle class include a desire for social respectability and material wealth and an emphasis on the family and education. American Heritage Dictionary

If defining middle class is so difficult, why start with it?  

Since many readers of this column will recognize themselves as middle class, I chose to start with the most self-identified group. Going forward I will describe more of the key characteristics, values, influences, jobs and lifestyles of middle class people. Through descriptions, interviews, biographies and articles we will see who the US middle class represents. 

In the next entries, definitions and descriptions of the other three classes appear, so that over the next few weeks a set of useable identifications emerge. We will ask as we continue this journey: Are the definitions relevant? Are they fair? How do we choose between competing definitions?

As always, your comments and contributions are welcome, and help build the portrait of class in the USA, so that we can see the differing characteristics, improve our self-identities and continue to reach across more effectively.

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