Economics

Fluidity and Mobility

It's time to redefine what it means to be middle class.

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The so-called middle class has been a target of politicians ever since it became a recognizable voting block. Unfortunately, the term is less and less meaningful for understanding the nation's political dynamics, particularly in a nation whose core values are grounded in an organic concept of economic opportunity rather than a static concept of security. As U.S. citizens go to the voting booths in November, the core political fight might not be over protecting the middle class but over which candidates are most likely to provide better opportunities for a newly defined middle class.

Traditionally, then, the debate is less about preserving a specific economic group as about ensuring that those who are not in that iconic midsection of the national income distribution can get to a higher level. Our Founding Fathers designed our political institutions so that our economy and communities would be open and dynamic; it's more important that you can get to where you want to go than whether you have already gotten to your destination. A big part of the current national political debate, set in the shadow of the stagnant recovery of the Great Recession, is over whether that dynamism is even possible.

Traditionalists have argued that dynamic, open-market economies are the most dependable institutions for vaulting individuals and households to a coveted level of income security, whether through entrepreneurship, homeownership, steady employment or the financial cushion of a pension or savings account. Now, these staples of social stability appear to be in jeopardy. That doesn't mean the aspirations have gone away, or that these aspirations don't motivate Americans in the workplace or the ballot box. Quite the opposite. The quest for economic opportunity, aspiring to enter the ranks of a new middle class, is in our cultural DNA.

The danger lies in thinking of the middle class as a static concept, an objectively defined benchmark of personal and familial achievement. In the mid-20th century, a middle-class lifestyle—a home, savings account, car, even a television—could be achieved through relatively low-skilled jobs at automobile, textile, or steel plants. In the 21st century, these manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and it's the information technology, financial advisers and communications specialists who have the monopoly on economic opportunity. A television might have been an aspiration of the 1950s and 1960s, but in the 2000s it's more likely to be the iPod, iPad or Xbox.

Dynamic economies and societies will always need a middle class because it represents what can be achieved. The national political debate may really be about whether the old way of securing these opportunities—through markets and individual freedom—is preferable to another way that embraces the heavy organizational hand of government.

Samuel R. Staley is the director of urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation and co-author of Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century. This article originally appeared at NPR.org.

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  1. It’s time to redefine what it means to be middle class.

    Here it goes: Anyone that has an income high enough not to be allowed to suck from the government’s teat, but low enough not to be able to hide or protect your assets from that very same government.

    1. That’s a very good definition.

      1. The middle class would do well, to pay their taxes, and die quickly

    2. I’ll second that, with perhaps a slight variation:

      The middle class are the government’s new mules: those with enough assets or income to be heavily taxed, but without enough to avoid taxation.

    3. excellent definition
      and what gets me is that plenty of people who “suck from the government’s teat” get labeled middle class, and therefore policies that help them are supposedly helping me (they most certainly do not).

      1. More importantly, those folks respond very favorably at the polls when coddled with language to that effect, despite on the whole contributing very little to the society which supports them.

    4. Anyone that has an income high enough not to be allowed to suck

      FIFY

  2. Anyone that has an income high enough not to be allowed to suck from the government’s teat, but low enough not to be able to hide or protect your assets from that very same government.

    The second half of that needs refinement. The statistically poor?the bottom two personal income quintiles, say? (they’re poor; look it up)?get jacked on everything but the income tax, and/so they don’t have any assets.

    My total take-home-and-keep percentage when I was making back-alley rat-euthanasia money was far lower than when it got when I hit the alternative-minimum range. I don’t think that’s unusual.

    Plus, all the “teat” money seems to go to specific subsets of the broke-ass, only somewhat correlated with income?and it mostly goes to the rich-ass, whose whole lives are state-subsidized to a probably incalculable degree. I mean, for example, all those cops everywhere are for them. They just terrorize the rest of us.
    Income is probably just too messy a metric. “You have no non-taxable income above the EITC threshold” might work.

  3. An iPod, iPad or XBox are not comparable items to a TV set in the 1950s.

    A B&W TV in the 50s could sell for about $300, which adjusted for inflation would be around $2000 today. Hardly the price of an iPad, iPod and XBox combined.

    1. And who “aspires” to own an iPod, iPad or XBox? I would not consider these to be luxury items in the modern scheme of things. They’re not indicators of achievement.

      1. An iPod, iPad or XBox are not luxury items? Huh?

        Perhaps “luxury item” does not mean what you think it means.

        Thus far I and my family have managed to live just fine without any of them.

        We do have a couple iPods, but we recognize them as the luxury items they so clearly are.

        Sure, they’re not indicators of acheivement, but it’s pretty hard to claim you’re indigent if you’re toting around a $400 smartphone or playing video games on a $300 plastic box.

        And in my experience, plenty of people aspire to own iPhones, iPads and XBoxes – my daughters and some of their friends among them.

        1. It’s everyone’s right to own a cell phone, an ipad, an ipod, cable tv, a computer, high speed internet, and video game machine + games. And since these are all rights, we need to tax people so government can provide these things for all!

          This must be done!

          Oh, and those that are taxed have to thank Obama.

          1. I’m off to Vegas to use my Califonia State-issued debit card. I’m gonna live it up with my welfare dough. Keep on workin’, you middle-class suckers.

  4. Middle class is more a state of mind, or an outlook on life, than an income level.

  5. Here’s the problem with comparing “the good old days” middle class to now.

    When I was a kid our house had one TV (with an antenna), one stereo, and one phone on the wall for a family of 6 (2 parents, 4 kids). Only the phone required a monthly bill (about $40 then or $110 today). My Dad was a white collar professional and we were very typical of our middle class neighborhood.

    Today’s “middle class” family of 4 is expected to have cell phones for each person (easily $150 a month for the family), internet access for the family computer and xBox or similar system ($40 a month in my area), basic cable TV ($50 a month in my area). That’s almost $250 a month in recuring expenses (going deluxe on the phone plan or cable TV can double that) that are totally independent of the original costs of the phones, game systems/games, computer, TV(s), etc.

    It’s the recuring costs of all the new technology that makes it hard to maintain what is now considered middle class.

    In my home today, only one person has a monthly cell phone bill, the others use cheap pre-paid phone. We don’t have cable (I don’t get to watch Monday Night Footall – sigh) but we do have internet access. My kids think we’re freaks compared to the rest of our middle class neighbors, but we can pay our bills and still save a little.

    1. Got rid of the cable TV last spring and am seriously considering going to a pre-paid phone when my current contract expires–I just don’t get enough phone calls to justify the expense.

      Biggest thing that is really killing the middle class right now is debt. Just look at housing–in the early 1950s, the average salary was about $7500 a year, and the average home was about $15,500. Now, the average salary is about $45K, but the average home is about $180K. Automobiles were typically paid on layaway or with cash, and loans usually didn’t go beyond 3-4 years; now people may not put anything down on a car and take out a 6-year loan to pay it off. This tells me that the actual purchasing power of the dollar has been effectively nuked.

      Add in credit card debt, HELOCs, and the assortment of electronic doodads that are all typically paid with interest-bearing debt rather than savings, and you’ve got a recipe for pain once the borrowers can’t borrow anymore.

      1. got rid of my verizon, went to boost cdma and its great. verizon was ripping me off!

    2. Oh for fucks sake. Your kids need a fucking life.

    3. being middle class is not based on earthly possessions that you acquire, rather it’s economics you make too much to be poor and too little to be considered rich, before once you had a decent education you could get a decent job and at least work your way up to middle class, that all stopped when corporations were allowed to send all jobs overseas to increase their profit and make other country citizens middle class, while leaving the american public with only options of cdo’s to invest in

      1. “All jobs” huh?

        I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a job or two still around.

  6. I know that I’m getting real tired of various politicians/activists/pundits mouthing off about who is “looking out for” the middle class and what created the middle class.

    There was some little leftist twit on the Stossel program the other day who claimed that labor unions created the middle class. Of course he had no actual proof of this but he was one of those types who seems to think that his personal opinons should be accepted as empirical fact if he repeats them forcefully and often.

    1. The “who is looking out for the middle class” thing is particularly stupid. Isn’t’ the good thing about being middle class supposed to be that you don’t need anyone looking out for you since you have the means to take care of yourself?

      1. Well the Democrats strategy ever since the New Deal is to make as many people as dependent on government has possible.

        So they want everyone to think they that they cannot achieve or maintain middle class status without the paternalistic hand of government holding them up.

        1. you’re an id!ot this is about the middle class take your partisan politics somewhere else

      2. I agree. I don’t need or want anyone to look out for me. I am more than willing to be accountable for my life and decisions. In return, I want the government to stay the hell of out of may way.

    2. “There was some little leftist twit on the Stossel program the other day who claimed that labor unions created the middle class.”

      A lot of these types seem to believe that the United States didn’t have a functioning society until 1910, which, not coincedentally, is when socialistic unionism began making its greatest gains.

      The middle class was around long before this period, of course (growth during the Gilded Age would have been impossible without it), but it flatters these fools to think that they invented the concept.

  7. “Middle Class” is one of those terms that everyone uses for their own purpose. As such it is rather silly to try to come up with a rigorous definition. But if I had to, I would say that you are middle class if you can afford all of the stuff you think you should have, but still need to keep working to maintain that lifestyle. As someone pointed out above, it has more to do with a state of mind than any specific income level or standard of living.

  8. So the term “middle class” doesn’t mean what it used to? I guess you could say that the old definition is OUT OF VOGUE!!

    (Geddit?)

    1. +1

    2. +10…awesome hardcore reference

  9. In the 21st century, these manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and it’s the information technology, financial advisers and communications specialists who have the monopoly on economic opportunity.

    That is, until they stop being it.

    The reason for the shift from the manufacturing economy to a service economy, despite having a great quantity of low skills people, is the great labor cost imposed by local, state and federal governments. In this strange quest for “fairness” in compensation, these governments, in concert with their ideological lackeys, have pretty much pushed a lot of labor out of the market, creating two unsurprising patters: a Black Market of labor (undocumented laborers and people that work “outside the books”), and high unemployment especially among minority groups. This distortion is very similar whenever price controls are imposed regardless of the product.

    With the constant lowering of costs achieved through division of labor and production, it would have been possible for even these low skilled workers to afford the same lifestyle that higher paid workers achieved in the 50’s and that specialized technicians enjoy today. Instead, you have: higher labor costs, higher costs of hiring, exuberant amounts of regulation and (just to place the final nail in the coffin): HIGH INFLATION.

  10. This feels like half an article, where’s the other half?

    1. Yeah, since when is 6 paragraphs good enough for the front billing on the Reason.com homepage? mad libertarian guy’s blogs have more substance than this.

  11. I heard some demographer talking about “the middle class” on some radio show a couple of years ago. Probably on NPR though I wouldn’t swear to it.

    The thing he talked about that stuck with me was a contentions that “the middle class” in this country is really two sociologically different groups that share a wide income bracket.

    He divided the country up into the poor, the working poor, the upper class and—in the middle—a combined group. For want of better names call them the working class and the professional class. Both groups include people in a enormously broad income range characterized by being able to make ends meet but not being able to get off the treadmill.

    The big difference: how much control you have over your own work. If you can tell your boss or customer “I’m not going to be able to come in Tuesday morning after all, when can we re-schedule?” or “We could do it that way, if we were silly. What were going to do it…” or otherwise exercise a degree of personal control over your work he put you in the professional class (yes that adulterates the meaning of the word, but it was done in long ago…). So assembly line, food service, phone bank or nurse: working class. Professor, consultant, small business owner, lawyer: professional class. Skilled trade: could go either way, so you tell me.

    This guy was of the opinion that this kind of self-determination at work makes a huge difference in world view. Having done work of both types, I tend to agree.

    1. interesting

      i’ve used the terms “professional class” and “labor class” to essentially describe the same concept.

      and when politicians spew endlessly about “middle class” – they are talking about the labor/working class – not the professional class. that’s why we always feel screwed.

  12. “In the 21st century, these manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and it’s the information technology, financial advisers and communications specialists who have the monopoly on economic opportunity.”

    I thought the article was overall good except for that above line. I mean, can we really go to the extent of saying the jobs of the future are in the middle-men service sector when America is already financially leveraged to the hilt and engaged in massive budget and trade deficits?

    If our creditors wanted these services, we wouldn’t be in the problem we’re in now, because we could sustainably produce them without debt creation.

    It seems to me that contrary to the author’s flippant claim that the future belongs to the middlemen, when the mother of all financial bubbles collapses, we’re going to transition from a debt, credit, and consumption service society to an equity, savings, and productive manufacturing society.

    Things that can’t go on forever won’t.

  13. related to a similar debate that has been floating around recently – define “rich”.

  14. where does a college educated person who only pulls in $14/hr fall into?

    1. Re: Carl,

      where does a college educated person who only pulls in $14/hr fall into?

      An open manhole?

  15. Not a very helpful article, because it doesn’t define the middle class in terms of income. Didn’t Newt Gingrich define the threshold of the middle class as something like an income of $225,000 in the mid-nineties? Adjusted for inflation, that would be around $300,000. Notice that the Democrats define this as rich! At $300,000, you have enough to live comfortably provided not too many kids are in private colleges. You make less than that, you’re working class. And anybody who tells you you’re middle class is kidding you.

    1. That is just a ridiculous number. 300k is maybe not rich, but gets pretty damn close. Definitely solidly upper middle class. Anyone making $200k now is doing very well, just not well enough to retire at 40. If I made that much money I wouldn’t knwo what to do with it. (please note that is not a justification for raising taxes on such people).

      1. If you were making 200k, lived in New York or New Jersey, and had 3 kids, you’d definitely not have more than you’d “know what to do with.”

    2. 290K is working class? That’s absurd, considering the median family income is 50k per year.

  16. There’s a reason why the meaning of the term “middle class” has become cloudy. It’s because it has a specific meaning in the language of the left, which can only be deciphered by unraveling the logic they use to arrive at it. The left credits LABOR UNIONS with the development of the middle class. So when they talk about “the disappearing middle class”, what they mean is “disappearing labor unions”. When they talk about “rebuilding the middle class”, what they mean is “rebuilding labor unions”. This is their “code language”. It’s how they let the unions know they’re going to get what they want. Both parties know that’s exactly what it means.

    To everybody else it’s suitably vague. And even if it leaves a bunch of middle class people wondering if they’re really poor or rich since it seems that almost everybody around them is middle class, the country is big enough that they imagine it must be true somewhere that the middle class is disappearing and they and everyone around them are just extremely lucky, and therefore bound to help all of the poor souls everywhere else in the country that they never see.

    Except that all the left wing politician means is…”labor unions”.

  17. Similar story from 15 years ago in the New Yorker.

    http://www.newyorker.com/archi….._000373563

    I remember it from a college writing class… Unfortunately there’s only the abstract here, but you can see the gist is basically the same.

    Not making any particular point, other than ‘the redefinition of “middle class”‘ isnt exactly a new idea.

  18. Another point to make (which I believe is explored more in the linked NY’r piece) is that the original definition of ‘middle class’ (in the marxian sense) are people who “own their own business/source of income”, as well as have some limited property (like a home); this also doesn’t imply any specific wage bracket, and was not supposed to; the idea was that there were ‘upper class’ people who owned assets, like significant tracts of land or titles or inherited wealth, a ‘middle’ merchant class that ranged from small shopkeepers/artisans to wealthy businessmen, and the ‘working class’ – those dependent upon the above 2 classes to provide them a wage.

    A point in the above article (that I recall) was that these traditional concepts have become bastardized because of the massive growth of the ‘professional’ classes and ‘corporate’ classes to the detriment of small business ownership; more and more businesses became concentrated public entities instead of ‘family’ operations.

    It’s similar to the morphing of the term ‘third world’, which originally meant (from wikipedia) = ” countries that remained non-aligned or not moving at all with either capitalism and NATO (which along with its allies represented the First World) or communism and the Soviet Union (which along with its allies represented the Second World).””

    As noted in the Wiki, the term is now used colloquially to refer to “poor/developing countries” – but it makes little sense because in that usage, it seems to lose the reference to worlds 1 and 2 (why is it ‘third’ if it’s just a synonym for ‘poor’?); again, turning into an arbitrary implication of ‘GDP brackets’, much like the arbitrary concept of ‘wage brackets’ to suggest a ‘middle class’.

    I think rather than try and change the basis for a definition of a term that is no longer relevant, we need new, more definable terms. Sort of like ‘professional class’, ‘corporate class’, ‘manufacturing class’, etc., based more on what skill-base or source of revenue people rely on for a living.

    Just a thought. I have a personal pet peeve with how words/concepts become disassociated with their original meanings through decades of sloppy usage, and eventually people demand they mean ‘the new thing’ because they’re too lazy to be more accurate with language. Though maybe i’m just etymologically pedantic. I’m sure i’m unintentionally guilty of doing it all the time myself.

  19. The problem I have with this whole “middle class” distinction is that it is too focused on income level and spending capacity.

    I’m sorry, these things do not translate perfectly among all people. I save money because I am a cheap bastard. I don’t earn that much money, but my bank and retirement accounts are stuffed. I have ZERO credit card debt and have a relatively cheap leased car and low rent. In short, my savings and income far out weigh my expenses and debts. I work with people who make three times as much as I do and they are in the fucking poor house because of their DEBT and EXPENSES. My boss cant afford his house or car, but he is not considered “middle class”. I got my iPod and my other luxuries, but I saved up for them so I didnt get them a week before pay day. If this makes me “middle class” the it is really nice to be middle class and I would ask the government to stop trying to help me because honestly, your big saggy tits are getting in my way.

  20. The combination of “cultural” and “DNA” is surely an oxymoron.

  21. this all sounds very nice, yet it is a fact that the US has now less social fluidity and upwards mobility than almost any other OECD nation.

  22. My sense of it is that, at least since Obama has been in Office, the term “middle class”, when used by a Democrat, refers primarily to people who earn less than $60K per year. And Obama, of course, cares not one wit about people in the $75K-$200K/yr income range.

    1. I already told you, when a Democrat says “middle class”, they mean labor unions. You have to learn the language.

  23. This is a stupid argument – it means nothing.

    Why do Dummycrats always seek to look at Americans as pitiful groups that need their protection?

    More than likely the folks not filthy rich and not filthy poor just want government and stupid reporters to just get out of their face.

  24. I thought middle class was a pregnant 17 year old at WalMart, while wearing a tube top; not sporting a belly button ring. Man, I need to get out more often.

  25. I used to be what I called middle class. I’m on disability and my income is static. Hubby got laid off last year in Oct, with 250 other people in the company. He immediately went full time to school, funded by the state to retool careers. After two semesters the state funds went dry. He needs 4 semesters (tech school). We have ZERO cash. Our income has dropped down to 2/3rds of our original. We are no longer middle class. We might lose the house we have lived in for 15 years, and never had a late payment. We’ve dropped cable, don’t go out for dinner anymore, minimized groceries, and more. I’m really scared. The ‘stimulus’ has done Nothing for us.

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