Tag Archives: inequality

The Madness of the Middle Class

by Matt McKinnon

middle-class-monopoly

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.

describe-yourself2

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.

wpa-worker-paycheck

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.

interstate-highway-system

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.

bangladesh1

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.

vacant-lowes

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.

foreclosures

Macklemore, My Girlfriend, and Me

by Joyce Clapp

My girlfriend1 and I got into our first fight this week, over Macklemore.

I know, it sounds silly. But hear me out.

Macklemore

Macklemore on stage.

You know who Macklemore is; at this point, you’d likely have to be living under a rock not to know who he is. Macklemore has managed to get the issue of marriage equality on radio stations everywhere; I can’t turn on a pop/rock station around here in Greensboro and not hear “Same Love” playing at least once a day, if not more. The song has apparently become an anthem for the marriage equality fight, and I won’t lie; I went to the Macklemore show in Raleigh last fall (I am a fan, for sure). Hearing a stadium full of people singing along to “Same Love” (in a state that voted in Amendment One last year by a 61%-to-39% margin, with a 34% voter turnout, not that this is hardly the “overwhelming majority” many folks wanted to portray it as) had me sniffling as I sang too.

So, the issue of marriage equality is out in front of the entire country in a big way. In fact, in such a big way that same-sex couples2 were married on the Grammys recently. In addition, Macklemore seems to be a genuinely nice guy who cares about the issue of same-sex marriage. This is awesome, right? When even the straight white guy is making hip-hop music about how same-sex marriage should be legal, then it should be legal, right?

And therein lies the difficulty.

It is a sociological fact that minority groups need majority allies. Allies, after all, make laws; the very definition of a minority group is one that doesn’t have power in a society. If enough men hadn’t become convinced that women should be able to vote, we still wouldn’t be able to. If seven white men hadn’t looked at Loving v. Virginia and said…

Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival…. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

…then we’d still live in a country that outlawed interracial marriage (and my girlfriend and I would be out of luck twice over).

The Supreme Court, [date].

The United States Supreme Court, 1967.

However, when a society only starts to pay attention to an issue when allies are the ones taking notice and pushing for social change, then we have a problem as minorities and as a society. When James Zwerg was beaten because of his participation in the Freedom Rides, people sat up and started paying attention—in other words, when a white guy got beaten up over racial civil rights. This is not to diminish the huge contributions that Zwerg and other white allies made to the Civil Rights Movement—but it does raise some problematic questions about power in society and why issues only seem “real” in society when majority group members join in. What does this do to the process of social change in a society? It can create a feeling of alienation among the very minorities the social movements are intended to help.

James Zwerg

James Zwerg in Alabama.

Which brings us back to Macklemore, my girlfriend, and me. My reaction to the Grammy event was, “Wow, that was sweet, and look, there’s same sex couples on TV. That’s pretty awesome. Maybe this is getting normalized, and where there’s normalcy, there’s social change” (I am, after all, first and foremost a sociology professor). Her reaction was, “Wow, what a publicity stunt designed to make CBS look good, and oh hey, who is this white straight dude making money off of same-sex marriage. I don’t want to be ‘normalized,’ I just want to get married.” My reaction to that was, “Yes, but until it’s legal everywhere, we don’t get to just get married, and who cares how this is getting done, as long as it’s getting done?” And we were off to the races.

Process versus product is a problem for any social movement. It’s easy for me to say, “by any means necessary”—in the end, I just want to be able marry my girlfriend, peacefully and legally. It is harder for her to say “by any means necessary” about a society that works to systematically marginalize her because of the groups she belongs to. Sociologists talk about intersectionality—the idea that all of our social identities interact to affect how society interacts with us, how we interact with society, and what kinds of inequalities we run into. In other words, it’s not just your race or gender orientation or sexual orientation that matter—all of these things matter when it comes to how we view the world, how it views us, and what hurdles we encounter. My race and social class and other identities added up to me going “Why does the process matter here, as long as it gets done and we get to get married in the end?”3

But process does matter. As social movements normalize and become more mainstream, those that are already marginalized in minority groups become even more marginalized. For example, Disney is releasing its first show featuring a same sex couple. Awesome, right?

Same-sex couple, per Disney.

Susan and Cheryl on Disney’s Good Luck Charlie.

Sure, there are blonde skinny white women who love women out there—and sometimes, they even hook up with each other, and they are as queer as anyone else; to say that white skinny blonde women can’t be queer would be missing the point.

But the more mainstream GLBTQIA2 issues get, the more the butch women and nelly queens and drag queens and trans* folks and genderqueer folks get marginalized (and forget people of color who are also queer—once you’re a minority within a minority within a minority, your voice gets drowned out). The more mainstream social change becomes, the more alienated the people at the edges of that change feel and are. After all, people who look straight aren’t as threatening to society, and it’s frustrating (at the least) to think that civil rights might be predicated on not appearing threatening. Nonetheless, that is how social change goes—after all, we don’t celebrate Malcolm X day. We do celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day. One gentleman was seen as threatening, and the other, not so much (at least, the parts of Dr. King’s vision that we talk about; we talk about the “I have a dream” MLK, but not the anti-Vietnam MLK).

This post doesn’t have a nice neat ending. Social change never does. I was wrong to say that process doesn’t matter. This process is rapidly marginalizing many of the same people it was meant to help, and that does matter. It also matters that in talking about marriage, we’re ignoring other issues—trans* health care, the 40% of homeless youth in the U.S. that are GLBTQIA2, violence against trans* folks, or the fact that sexuality is not a federally protected employment class. We cannot marginalize large sections of our community in the quest for one (very important, but) issue. Process matters, and how we get to social changes matter. I was wrong to say that it didn’t, and in doing so, I pushed my future wife’s voice to the sideline.

We need allies. Allies are important to social change; they have power in society, and some of our allies care deeply and passionately about their minority friends, family, and loved ones (no matter what the issue in question is). However, we need to not have social movements where allies become the only faces on those social movements. We need a society where our culture encourages marginalized voices on the edges of marginalized communities to have a voice. How do we make that cultural change happen? I don’t know.

———

1. Sigh. Titles, when you’re queer, can get annoying. We’re engaged, and planning an August wedding. However, when I say “fiancé,” that erases the fact that we’re both women. Wife, on the other hand, will not have that issue. So right now, I still tend to refer to her as my girlfriend (even though, when we’re past the age of 35, that title also starts to feel silly).

2. Dear news media: we’re not all gay. Can we please stop referring to “gay couples”?

3. And we kind of can right now—we’ll be legally married in Maryland. That is both awesome and bittersweet.

On Sitting In, and Standing Up

by Jay Parr

I had a completely different blog entry ready to go this morning, but then I woke from a dream that got me thinking about something more important.

Woolworth's Sit-In

In the dream I was walking into a diner that was attached to a basic travel hotel. There were three or four young women — college athletes dressed in team sweatshirts or some such (you know how vague dreams can be) — sitting on the bench waiting to be seated. The host offered to seat me (and my companions?), when I pointed out that those young women had been there first.

That was when it came to my attention that the diner would not seat unaccompanied women.

I’m proud of my dream self, because I went ballistic. I started off ranting at the poor young host. He was, of course, just an employee, who could either do what he was told or find himself without even this subsistence-level job. In fact, as I pointed past him at the unoccupied counter seating, traditionally used by those who are eating “unaccompanied,” his face kind of looked like the the counter clerk’s in that famous image at the top of this post: Surely sympathetic (I mean, the guy in that picture couldn’t even eat at the counter where he worked), but in no position to even comment on the disparity, much less do anything about it.

Newt Gingrich being Very Important

Newt Gingrich being Very Important

 After a vague dream-transition I found myself talking to the man in charge. And a police officer. Both were white men. The manager/owner was older, white-haired, and reeked of privilege. Actually, looking back at the dream, he kind of reminds me of Newt Gingrich. He was spewing some nonsense about the morality of allowing unaccompanied young women to come into a family establishment and distract the poor unsuspecting fathers from their families. Because that’s obviously what these college athletes were up to, in their team sweatshirts, with no makeup on, hair pulled up in practical athletic ties, ignoring everyone else and talking shop amongst themselves. Surely it was all a ruse, and they were really there to steal me from my wife and daughter. Oh, and somehow it was their fault that I just might be too weak-willed to control myself? And of course, were I to have such a moment of weakness it would be inconceivable that they might, you know, reject my advances or something.

The cop had been called because some hothead was making a scene.

That’s about all I remember of the dream. That and something about large vehicles getting tangled up at highway speeds (anxiety much?). But as I was setting the coffee to brew this morning I started wondering what I really would have done, had I found myself in a similar situation, say, perhaps at that Woolworth’s counter down on Elm Street on that Monday afternoon in the winter of ’60. I like to think I would have pointed out those four scared but stoic freshmen and politely said, “They were here before me; I’ll wait until they’ve been served.” I mean, I know I wouldn’t have been among the hecklers shouting racist epithets (I’ve always been a little too Quaker for that), but would I have just quietly gotten my order and gone on with my day? Would I have gone home and mentioned the incident to my wife? Would I have been among the Woman’s College (UNCG) or Guilford College students who came downtown to clog the counters with white “customers” insisting that the the black protesters be served first? Or would I have been too busy supporting my family (or perhaps “too busy supporting my family”) to do much more than follow the articles in the newspaper?

pride_flag

The Pride Flag, because not all families are heteronormative.

I definitely connect that issue with North Carolina’s “Amendment One” vote last May. I was vocally against it, not just because I support same-sex marriage (which I do), but all the more so because its wording is so much broader and insidious that it affects any unmarried couple in the state, gay or straight. Oh, and their children.

I learned of the bill’s introduction in the state legislature shortly after an old coworker of mine lost his partner of thirty years and had to endure absurd legal challenges because the state considered my marriage — my second marriage, mind you, which was less than three years old at the time and had been performed in another state — more valid than his decades-long partnership, which had begun before my wife was even born. She and I have been flying a pride flag on our house since the referendum bill passed in the legislature. It’s a small gesture, but it’s how we feel about the issue.

UNCG students having fun at at a Muslim Student Association picnic.

UNCG students having fun at at a Muslim Student Association picnic.

The fact that those being denied service in my dream were women also points (albeit circuitously) to mainstream America’s complicated and uncomfortable relationship with Islamic nations, Muslim Americans, and Islam in general. I have a problem with any legal system or culture that limits the options of any group merely by virtue of their membership in that group. That goes for nations that curtail the rights of women — some of which do so on religious grounds, and some of which (not all the same ones) are Islamic nations — but it also goes for western nations and institutions that want to limit the rights of Muslim women to wear hijab, niqab, or even burqas. My wife has childhood friends, two sisters, who are Muslim. One of the sisters is divorced from an abusive husband — and the Muslim divorce was a lot simpler than the American legal divorce. The other sister once set aside the injunction against being alone with a man other than her husband, simply so that her sister’s childhood friend’s husband (i.e., yours truly) didn’t have to sit and wait alone. Brought me delicious cardamom tea and we had a delightful conversation amidst the din of playing children. Southern hospitality at its finest. These women are American born and raised. They are not oppressed by a misogynistic culture (well, that’s debatable, but that’s a whole different conversation). Their choice to wear hijab is not a symptom of their oppression, but an expression of their cultural identity. Yes, there are women who wear hijab (and niqab, and burqas) because they are legally bound to do so by oppressive theocratic legal systems. Yes, there are places in the world where unaccompanied women cannot be seated in a restaurant, or drive a car, or even walk down the street, because those in power have deemed it inappropriate. And yes, there are radical Muslim elements that view America(ns) as the godless enemy. But we can’t allow ourselves to conflate an expression of religious and cultural identity (wearing hijab) with sympathy for oppressive governments or violent radicals. Really. It makes as much sense to declare anyone with a crucifix or a rosary in league with the IRA bombers (and don’t get me started on how our media always point out the religious affiliation of “Islamic terrorists” but never that of Christian terrorists). But I digress.

I suppose this post could be an examination of my responsibilities as one who benefits from the privilege of the straight white male, or more broadly, the responsibilities of anyone who benefits from the privilege of majority status. Because I really do feel that whenever I encounter situations in which someone is being denied equal treatment or equal access to resources because of their gender — or their race, or their economic background, or their sexual identity, or their cultural identity, or their citizenship status — that it is my responsibility to call attention to the disparity, to voice my opposition to it, and to subvert it in any way that I can. And I guess that’s why, even in that dream that got me started on this rambling post, I caused enough of a ruckus that someone called the cops. Because really, it’s what I think any of us should do.

What bothers me most, though, is that it never occurred to me to simply say of those unaccompanied girls, “Oh, they’re with me.”