Who Is The Middle Class?

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When democratic leaders in congress criticized President Bush's tax cut proposal, they argued that the tax cuts were deeply unfair to the middle class. But who is the middle class?

If you went by opinion polls, just about everybody. In our latest installment in the WKSU series "New Work New Families: America's Juggling Act," Vincent Duffy tries to define the middle class in America...

The National Center for Opinion Research says 36% of people earning less then $15,000 a year call themselves middle class. Among those with incomes between $35,000 and $50,000, half claim to be middle class. And what about those wealthy Americans who earn more than $75,000 a year? 71% of them describe themselves as middle class. They can't all be middle class, but Dr. John Russo with the Center for Working Class studies at Youngstown State University says the responses don't surprise him...

Russo: Americans have always been confused about class. Often what they've been saying is that this is a classless society. Or they are viewing it as a summation of traits that put you in a social structure. But the most dominant of this notion that we are largely middle class in America.
With a new president in Washington, politicians, spin-doctors and pundits are fighting over how proposed tax cuts and other policy proposals will affect various income groups, and their favorite is the middle class. That's right, you and me? Maybe not. For an economist like Kent State professor Kathy Wilson, middle class means middle-income families...
Wilson: So you think of everyone in America standing in line based on how much income they have. The poorest 20%, pretty much everyone will think of as low-income. The richest 20% everyone will pretty much think of as high income...you may be surprised to find out how little income it takes to become in that high-income group. And in that middle part there is some range. You have that upper middle, lower middle class...But in that middle area is what we consider middle class. So by definition, in some senses, the middle class...You are just comparing the income relative to the ones around you.
So by Wilson's definition, using U.S. census data from 1999, the middle class is those families whose incomes are more than $17,000 and less than $76,000. That's right...if your household income is more than $76,000, you are among the richest 20% of Americans...yet three-quarters of these people still define themselves as middle class. Wilson says that's because most people have a pretty limited worldview when it comes to incomes, and compare themselves to their socio-economic peers, not the nation as a whole...
Wilson: I think part of it is that once we get into that 20%, there are huge variants. So when we think of wealth--we think of Bill Gates. We don't think of our next-door neighbor who has an $85,000 a year job.
Russo believes there's more to it than that...
Russo: I think that two things can happen. One, a lot of very wealthy people don't want you to know how much money they have and how much of the wealth in the country that they control. Other people may have worked themselves up and they feel somewhat embarrassed. Regarding working class academics, they are caught between two worlds; the world that they left and the world that they are now in. And there is a type of discomfort. Especially if people have moved up through the classes, yet they continue to have many of the values and insecurities that they had when they were part of the working class.
Another way to determine the economic middle class is to take the median household income of $40,800 and define as middle class those households that are between 80% and 120% of the median...that is households between $33,000 and $49,000. But using income as the sole indicator of class doesn't come close to defining the middle class. As Russo points out, a middle-income salary is only part of the class equation...
Russo: It would be very dependent on locale, where you live, geography, your needs for transportation--there are a lot of different factors. That's why the notion of being middle class is often disputed because different social scientists and economists use different variables to determine what constitutes middle class. It's very hard to arbitrarily talk about that.
For instance, status can play as much of a role as income in how you define your class placement. Russo says the manager of a shoe store may only earn $15,000 a year, but define himself as middle class because he is a manager. Wilson agrees and says everything about us can be seen as a class indicator...
Wilson: I think a lot of these class indicators are actually tied not just to income, but also to education level. I think that income and education level are very closely related. So perhaps I go to the ballet because I have a lot of money. Perhaps I go because while I was a student in college I had to take a liberal arts class that introduced me to the ballet. And that's when I realized that I really liked this--whereas before I had the experience I had never even been exposed to the ballet. And so I think it's hard when I look at the cultural life-style type things--to separate out the income part from what the factors of education are into. But I still see very much difference in the lifestyle. If someone tells me that they are going bowling Friday night, I might think of that differently than if someone says they went to go play golf. Or that they went to the theatre--not that there is anything wrong with bowling, I love to bowl. But there are differences that we think of in terms of how people spend their time and a lot of them are tied to education and income.
We hear a lot these days about middle class anxiety, and the shrinking middle class. Wilson says by definition the middle class cannot shrink, because the statistical middle is always there. She also believes that during the last decade, the economic situation of the middle class has improved, although not nearly as much as the wealthy...
Wilson: What really has happened is that the poor have gotten a little bit richer, the middle have gotten somewhat richer and the rich have gotten a lot richer.
But Russo disagrees. He believes the economic situation for the middle class has deteriorated over the last decade, and has been in decline since the 1970s...
Russo: In the 1990s, income levels have not grown dramatically, despite a strong economy, low inflation, low unemployment. We've seen a slowdown in terms of fringe benefits, healthcare--and employees having to pay a larger portion of that as result of that. There has been a lowering of their disposable income and a lowering of their standard of living.
But whether you believe your economic situation has improved or worsened over the last ten years, social scientists agree that even if you heard evidence to the contrary in this report, most listeners will still attempt to define themselves as middle class. Wilson says that cultural mindset helps those in power...
Wilson: It's in Washington's best interest in getting everyone to think that they are middle class, and then using this middle class analogy to push a middle class agenda for re-election. When Gore talked about a middle class tax-cut, a lot of people were driving down the road nodding "yes, yes. That will help me, that will help me, that will help me." And that definitely helped Gore in the campaign, I think. When, in reality, some of those people may not have been helped by that tax cut. And so in Washington's perspective, they like the fact that people kind of widen what it takes to be in the middle class.
If you are now thoroughly confused about whether or not you belong to the middle class, Dr. Toni Horst, the senior economist at economy.com provides this litmus test. Is your household income between $32,000 and $50,000? Do you have a positive net worth, that is if you sold everything you owned, could you pay off all your debts and still have money left over? Is at least one person in your household a high school graduate? You might expect a college degree to be required, but only one in four Americans graduates from college...so a high school degree can get you to the middle. Do you have health insurance? Do you have a credit card? And finally, do you still believe that if you work harder or smarter, the opportunity exists to move up the economic ladder? Horst says if you can answer yes to all of those questions, congratulations, you're probably middle class.

I'm Vincent Duffy, 89.7 WKSU.

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