The Madness of the Middle Class

by Matt McKinnon

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Politicians love to talk about the Middle Class. It’s easy to see why: Depending on how one defines it, the “middle class” makes up somewhere around 55% of the electorate. A clear majority that acts as a barometer in national elections: When a majority of the middle class votes one way or another, that side wins.

Politicians also love to talk about how bad the middle class has it, or how bad the other side’s policies have been for the middle class. Few actually stop to define what they mean by the “middle class” or to question what others mean. And even fewer ever discuss the reasonableness of the definition itself.

After all, most everybody wants to be middle class, it seems. And most people consider themselves middle class, regardless of the criteria used or the evidence to support it. So it makes sense for politicians and the media to fawn all over this group, since even those who might not be middle class still consider themselves as such.

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A cursory glance at the term’s usage these days tends to settle on a definition of earning anywhere between $30,000 and $100,000 a year. Setting aside the huge differences in this range (do folks who make $100,000 have much in common with those who make $30,000?), the definition itself denotes a shift in meaning when compared to more historical uses of the term.

After all, the term’s origins in the 18th century attempted to describe the class of people somewhere between the nobility and peasantry of Europe: a collection of professionals like doctors and lawyers, business owners, bankers, etc… Folks, in essence, who lived in the city (the bourgeoisie) and had as much (if not more) money than the aristocracy, but with none of the family history, class rank, or titles to go along with it.

By the 20th century, after the Industrial Revolution had shaken up the demographics considerably, the “middle class” came to mean that group of folks between the upper class and the working class. The bourgeoisie gets further split with the rise of small family businesses—the petite bourgeoisie and the term “middle class” grew to include the growing number of “white collar” workers brought about by the modernization of the economy. We see this in the distinction today between the “upper” middle class and the “lower” or “working” middle class, though even here, there is no clear differentiation.

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The post-World-War-II boom of the American economy completed the shift of the average worker from agriculture to industry that had begun earlier in the century, and precipitated the growth of the American Middle Class, that bastion of political intrigue and, so it seems, economic doom.

Two controversial points strike me: That the growth of the American Middle Class is basically the result of government programs in the wake of World War II and the economic boom that accompanied them, and that, in the long run, many of our problems are not the result of the decline of the Middle Class, but because of its rise—and the sort of people we have become as a result.

As to the first, it is no doubt that the economic growth of the private sector following World War II drove the material success of the burgeoning middle class, but it cannot be ignored that this included on the one hand the growth of “big government” in building highways and other infrastructure as well as the rebuilding of war-torn Europe and the rise of the military-industrial complex. Thus, economically speaking, government spending had a considerable influence in the growing economy. Couple that with the specific government programs in the GI Bill that included college loans, mortgages, and low-interest business loans, and you have the makings of the American Middle Class.

The point is simple: The government, and specifically government spending, had much to do with the creation of the middle class. Far from being its enemy, historically at least, it has been its greatest patron.

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Now to the second and more controversial point: That perhaps it is the rise of the middle class—and not its decline—that has precipitated many of our nation’s current social woes. Granted, the decline of the middle class is directly related to the growth of income disparity in this country and is itself the result of our economy’s shift from being production oriented to a service-driven one. The American Middle Class, I submit, is not responsible for this decline; nor is it directly responsible for the shipping of production jobs overseas.

And yet, it is not entirely free of blame either.

The growth of the middle class has meant, among other things, certain material benefits and opportunities. With the rise of technology, it has offered us essential benefits—like modern health care, housing, and transportation—as well as some not as essential, like Xboxes, iPhones, and flat-screen televisions.

In short, it has provided us with a lifestyle of reasonable comfort and incredible ease at the expense of outrageous consumption. We eat more (way more than we need) but we also eat worse. We buy things we cannot afford because we think we deserve them (and because credit is ridiculously accessible, albeit with usury-like interest). We demand services for things that our parents and grandparents (who, for the vast majority of us, did not grow up middle class) did for themselves—or did without. We don’t grow our own food, or make our own clothing, or even change the oil in our own cars.

No, instead of making us better, the rise of the Middle Class has made us, for the most part, a bunch of privileged, over-fed, under-exercised, spoiled whiners who blame government and business for shipping our jobs overseas, and yet flock to Wal-Mart and Target to buy cheap goods that are the result of those jobs going overseas.

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Now this is not to excuse government and business for their considerable part in all of this, but, for better or worse, we in the middle class are the ones whose lifestyles can only seem to be sustained with cheap goods from even cheaper labor. It’s not that we won’t work (though I do contend most of us won’t do certain jobs anymore); it’s that it costs so much to employ us. Things like job safety, employment benefits, minimum wages, and health care are all important ideas that we take for granted, but they are also costly. It is simply cheaper to employ someone in China or Taiwan, where these safeguards are not as strongly regulated. And in fact, as many Chinese become more middle class and demand the same sorts of benefits and safeguards that we do, it has become cheaper to employ folks in a country like Vietnam or Honduras.

It seems everybody loves capitalism until it does what it always does—finds the cheapest way to manufacture a good (like it did this when the textile mills moved from New England to the South, and again when they moved from the South to Asia and Central America).

This is not to attack the Middle Class, but rather to remind us that the middle class did not build this country. The working class did. The middle class did not survive the Depression. The working class did. The middle class did not fight and win World War II and subsequently build this nation into a military and economic superpower. That was the working class as well. But, in doing so, the working class also built itself into the middle class, and now finds itself unable or unwilling for the most part to do those things that were built into working class values but that seem to be lacking in middle class ones.

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And this includes the present company as well.

My children are growing up middle class, as did I. The difference is that I was raised by folks who grew up working class while they are being raised by two people who grew up middle class and with all the entitlement that comes with that. Sure, I had my needs met and enjoyed many technological benefits that my parents did not. But not to the extent that I and my wife provide to our sons.

My father grew up in High Point, NC (a city) in the 30’s, yet had an outhouse and lived in a two bedroom house with four other siblings and his mother. He swept mill floors. He helped in the garden. He went to war when he was seventeen. My seventeen-year old has yet to hold a paying job (his grades are already a struggle). My mother visited her grandparents for summer vacations and stayed in a house that had no electricity. Her father had to bank the coal stove at night so they would stay warm (in Pennsylvania) but not die from carbon monoxide. My six-year old is more proficient on the iPad than I am and my eight-year old can work my smart phone better than me.

The point is that it is precisely when the politicians start their pandering that we should question, not just with the conservatives that maybe the underclass was better off before all of the government entitlements, but maybe we in the middle class were better off in the working class.

And more to the point: maybe the entire nation was as well.

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7 responses to “The Madness of the Middle Class

  1. You might like this read from one of my favorite professors.

  2. Chanda Platania

    I wish I could disagree with your statements but I can’t. Because, as an argument I was dealing with recently, the working class matters just as much as any Fat Cat CEO and they essentially make the US go. I’ve seen so many going ‘back to the basics’ with gardens and sewing that maybe we’re not as far gone as you may believe (?).
    I always thought my son (age 15) was spoiled with technology but he has just started working at a mechanics garage on Saturdays and was asked to work more days a week because he works so hard while there. I was surprised because I never see this enterprise in him at home but maybe he’s more ready for adulthood than I thought. And so what if it means he’ll work in a garage as a career…people need their cars to go since they can’t do the work themselves, right?
    And much like other countries that strive to be better and more like the US, our own social classes rise up and changes only to find that the grass wasn’t really greener and that they had a part in making it a little brown around the edges. People would rather complain than learn and vote and be a part of decisions.

  3. Before I decided to try stepping off the incredibly materialistic holiday merry-go-round years ago, I remember strolling through Walmart one evening (usually I am in and out quickly when I shop) and thinking to myself “Do we REALLY need three foot tall plastic snowmen and inflatable life-size snow globes to make Christmas complete?” When I exited the store, I felt more depressed than I could ever recall feeling in my life. Thank you for putting those emotions into words AND offering a reasonable and sensible reason for society’s current woes.

  4. I completely agree with your stand that the working class were the builders of societies and are now a dying breed. The problem with America today is that most strive to be white collar workers, which is an impossibility. The jobs that once created and sustained the middle class are not only less desirable in today’s thinking, but also the wages are less conducive to a middle class life. Factory workers in the past could afford a home, car, and a decent life for themselves and their family on just the one income. How did this all change? I believe it is as you say, the ethics of the working class have become lost by commercialism, greed, and the want of better things for our children and for ourselves; things we don’t even need. Wages have also not kept up with inflation and it does indeed cost more to employ Americans; however no one complains about the disparities of the upper echelon and shareholders of big businesses who appropriate themselves the lion’s share of everything. CEOs today are making on average 331/1 salary ratio to the common worker and 774/1 for CEO to minimum wage pay. In the 1960’s, the ratio of CEO to worker earnings was 60/1. The ugly side of American Capitalism is destroying the working class, the very fabric of this country.

  5. This post led me to appreciate all the manual labor things I am capable of doing in a whole new way….it also made me very glad I passed them on to my children. Thanks!

  6. This article has some very good points, especially about our materialistic consumption of cheap goods produced by the people our jobs have been shipped to overseas to. Not only that, but we use our purchasing power poorly, buying products that are often produced with what equates to slave labor, just to save money. Should we be content with out smartphones if we know the people who make them are so miserable that the factories they work at have nets up to prevent workers from jumping off the roof?

    I’m not sure if things would necessarily be better to go back to the time of the working class, there were a lot of problems during that time as well. However, there is a need for an attitude readjustment where we refocus on balance and the things that matter. Maybe if enough people become dissatisfied, which I think a lot of people are now, there can be a way to move forward.

  7. Teresa Fischbach

    With regards to your comment “After all, most everybody wants to be middle class, it seems. And most people consider themselves middle class, regardless of the criteria used or the evidence to support it” I say I too thought this, but after seeing the general income of $30,000 and $100,000 a year, I see that is not the case for me. I am probably below the poverty line. I have never made that income. I guess I do fall in the working class. It is true we eat more and worse, and we buy things we can’t afford. People get overextended with credit so readily available. Back in the mid-80s, my husband and I had to file bankruptcy because when factories laid off, we could not keep up the payments. In that sense, I can relate to what you are saying. I also totally agree that kids these days are spoiled with all the technological items. I can’t believe how young some kids are with cell phones. Really people?