Defining the Middle Class

Progressives wrongly portray a middle class with suppressed earnings.

Obama has called the restoration of the middle class the defining issue of our time. He said in a “60 Minutes” interview Dec 11 “we should be building a broad-based middle class ....”

All politicians say they’re for the “middle class,” Some call it the “working class.” But what is the middle class? No one knows precisely. It has been defined in several ways over the years.

Almost everyone thinks he or she is in the middle class. Even though we’re supposedly a classless society.

When Democrat candidates talk of helping the “middle class” or “working class,” they refer more generally to blue collar workers—as if white collar workers did no work.

The most recent federal figures on poverty levels range from a one person family having $16,335 to a family of eight having $56,445. Some in poverty might well be seen as making middle class income.

Today the Democrats, with aid from some news media, are presenting a distorted picture of a nation where “median incomes” have remained a straight line for scores of years while incomes of the rich, particularly in the past couple of decades have rising sharply.

A recent article included just such a chart. Incomes for 90 percent of Americans have been stuck in neutral, the story said. Other liberal media carried the same story.

Progressive Elizabeth Warren has her definition. She has been the Chairwoman of the Congressional Oversight Panel that oversees TARP (Toxic Asset Relief Program) and is the Leo Gottlieb Professor at Harvard Law School. A darling of the liberal left, she now wants to be the next Democrat Senator from Massachusetts.

She has written: “The crisis facing the middle class started more than a generation ago. Even as productivity rose, the wages of the average fully employed male have been flat since the 1970s.

“Pundits talk about ‘populist rage’ as a way to trivialize the anger and fear coursing through the middle class,” she wrote. “But they have it wrong. Families understand with crystalline clarity that the rules they have played by are not the same rules that govern Wall Street....They understand that their economic security is under assault and that leaving consumer debt effectively unregulated does not work.”

You would think she has just huddled with the Wall Street occupiers.

“America today,” she continues in her Dec. 11 op ed piece in the Huffington Post, “has plenty of rich and super-rich. But it has far more families who did all the right things, but who still have no real security....Tens of millions of once secure middle class families now live paycheck to paycheck, waiting as their debts pile up and worrying about whether a pick slip or a bad diagnosis will send them hurtling over an economic cliff,” she sobbed.

That’s the ironclad leftist view of middle class woes. And, if she should exercise an ounce of honesty, she would lay blame at the feet of Barack Obama, certainly in the past three years.

Examining Census Bureau data, the picture is much different from that depicted by liberal Prof. Elizabeth Warren. The middle incomes listed for 1970, ranged from $3,638 to $10,276. But in 2000, the middle household incomes ranged from $17,920 to $52,174. The Census put incomes per capita in 1970 at $15,920; in 2000 at $28,293—a sizeable increase, not the “flat” income Warrant contended. In 2010, Obama’s recession pulled per capita income down to $26,487.

Sociologists William Thompson and Joseph Hickey in 2005 split the middle class into several categories:

1.    Capitalist class (1%). Top-level executives, celebrities, heirs, income of $500,000 plus. Often Ivy League educated.

2.    Upper middle class (15%). Highly educated (often with graduate degrees) professionals and managers with household incomes varying from high five figures to commonly above $100,000.

3.    Lower middle class (32%). Semi-professionals and craftsmen with some work autonomy; household incomes commonly range from $35,000 to $75,000. Typically some college education.

4.    Working class (32%). Clerical, pink- and blue collar workers with often low income security; common household income range from $16,000 to $30,000. High school education.

5.    Lower class (14 to 20%). Those who occupy poorly paid positions or rely on government subsidies. Some high school education. The percentage is much higher today.

The dollar figures obviously would have change some since the 2005 study, although the categories may well be quite similar.

According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, “While the instability of individual male workers’ earnings rose sharply between the 1970s and 1980s, it has been more or less stable since then, “trending up and down with the business cycle through the 1980s and 1990s, and rising again in the early 2000s.” This “clear trend from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, and an upswing in the early 2000s—has been “confirmed by numerous analyses,” the Institute said, including a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

“Contrary to assertions in the popular press,” added the Institute, “women’s increased workforce participation has not been a major factor contributing to the rise in family income volatility.” In short, “the stabilizing influence on family income of the decrease in female earnings instability is overwhelmed by the rise in men’s earnings instability.”

Household dollar figures often don’t reflect class status and standard of living. They are largely influenced by the number of income earners and fail to recognize household size. It’s quite possible for a husband and wife in a lower working class household to out-earn a one-earner upper middle class household. A fireman married to a teacher might earn well over $100,000, making it difficult for politicians who say they are out to aid the so-called 99 percent.

A middle class small business owner may earn much more than $250,000, but also has large expenses in inventory and cost of employees hired.

Many look aghast at the cultural values depicted on television, in motion picture and music industries, and on the Internet aimed at, and seemingly soaked up by, the middle class.

Our founding fathers believed, however, that it was not the role of politicians or government to try to change public behavior. Rather, our Constitution was drafted on the premise that virtue had to come from citizens themselves, typically acting through private citizen bodies, such as the family, church, community and voluntary organizations.

The middle class and working class—frequently one and the same—are the foundations of American society. They will inevitably decide the issues of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, without much help from politicians.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.  


Wondering what happened to your Disqus comments?

Read the Story