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What's the Matter with the Middle Class?

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Sean T

Last week, “class” was in the news. But – as usual for most all of our political discourse – the focus was on the struggles of the amorphous “middle” class, rather than the perpetual and worsening poverty of the “lower” classes.

There was good reason for class to dominate the headlines last week. On Monday, a new Pew Poll showed a significant shift in the proportion of people who self-identify with the “lower” classes (up to 32% in 2012, from 25% in 2008). Then on Wednesday, the Census Bureau released its annual update on poverty, income and health insurance – though the data on poverty was pretty anti-climactic since the “US poverty rate [was] unchanged; record numbers persist,” as one headline put it. And the week ended with Friday’s interview where Mitt Romney declared that he considered households earning $200-$250k and less as middle income– a number that is roughly 0.1% of Romney’s more than $250 million net worth.

But despite the volume of stories touching on issues of class and poverty, the primary reference point was often the “middle” – rather than the “lower” – class. This photo and caption from a Washington Post article shows the limited circumstances in which people poor enough to qualify for public assistance matter for the media. It often seems as though poverty is only worth talking about when someone has fallen down the economic ladder. During the height of the recession, there were many sympathetic profiles about families who had been “middle class” but were struggling with hunger, homelessness and unemployment (see this documentary for example). Such stories that tug at middle class viewers’ heart-strings are certainly important and eye-opening. But the problem with such cautionary tales of people who fall into poverty is that they turn a blind eye to the harsh reality of many people who are perpetually stuck there; completely ignoring those who have been shut out of the “middle” class “American dream” generation after generation.

According to a Pew Report on economic mobility there are a lot of people stuck at the bottom and shut out of the “middle”; 66% of those raised in the bottom of the wealth ladder stay stuck there as adults. And the latest Census data shows that one in five children is living in poverty, and another one in five children is living in a family that is not officially poor but certainly struggling (less than 200% of the poverty line). Given the current economic reality of declining mobility and wages, and growing inequality; roughly 40% of our nation’s children seem likely to face a life where they’re perpetually struggling to make ends. That bleak future is a near certainty unless there is some major political and policy change that benefits the bottom two-fifths of the population. Such change is only going to come about through collective struggle by the growing “lower” class, which is why Pew’s poll results were so remarkable.

A seven-point swing in the percent of people who self-identify as part of the “lower” classes could represent a real re-alignment in people’s self-perceptions and class politics. There is political power to be built in people identifying as “lower” class, rather than having delusions about their “middle” class status. If the people who are newly discarding their “middle” class identity actually join with the millions who held no such illusions before the recession, then there is real potential for putting poverty and inequality on the political and policy agenda.

But there are real – and multiple – forces determined to keep the uplift of the “lower” classes off the political agenda. As Prof. Thomas Edsall wrote in the New York Times over the weekend, the “existing sources of campaign finance on which both parties are dependent” keep issues of poverty off limits because their bottom lines are based on exploitation of the poor. An additional challenge is that the rich minority at the top has skewed the idea of what the “middle” class is – in much the same way that the political center has shifted to the right. Romney’s $200-$250k upper limit for the middle class happens to be the same cutoff used by President Obama. And it means that only 4% of the population is above “middle” class status – and looking at the graph to the right you can see that the richest 4% is a widely unequal economic class. Given the shifting definition, it’s hard to imagine the upper third of the “middle” (the highest 80% had incomes between $101,583 and $250,000) throwing its political heft behind the cause of the “lower” classes (the bottom 40% had incomes below $38,520). Even if Occupy Wall Street had tweaked it’s tagline to “we are the 96%” it still would have papered over real political differences between the “lower” and “middle” classes.

There is obvious opportunity to build political power based on the growing sense (by at least a third of the population) that the “middle” class catch-all doesn’t reflect where many fall in our nation’s economic hierarchy. However, it’s also very possible that the “middle” class buffer between the poor and rich could operate as a barrier to economic progress for those below. After all, such a pattern isn’t a new story or concern. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. criticized the complacency of the Black middle class “who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because at points they profit by segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses.” The question is whether our economic conditions of wage stagnation for the masses and wealth capture at the top will make the “middle” class conscious about and sensitive to the “problems of the masses,” or if they’ll protect the small and dwindling “degree of academic and economic security” they enjoy by siding with the top 4% who are determined to keep poverty off the political agenda.