The Inequality of the Middle Class

26 Sep

These illuminating infographics from Mother Jones sparked a deeply personal discussion here at Mislabeled this weekend.  Initially, we were talking about just what it says – IT’S THE INEQUALITY, STUPID!  Am I surprised that the 10 richest members of Congress all voted for the Bush tax cuts?  Nope.  Am I slightly more shocked that, as an entrenched member of the bottom 20 percent of this country’s earner’s, I’m losing about $5,000 a year in taxes that I would have held onto if the growth rate had remained stable, while the top one percent gained nearly $600,000 in the same period?!  Well, yea, that one gave me some pause.

Look at the graphs.  They speak for themselves.  I’d love to see a discussion happen in the comments below about your impressions, thoughts, and experiences along these lines.

What I’d like to bring up more, though, is the issue of class. There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about the “disappearing” middle class.  While the commentators go back and forth on what’s happening in light of the 2008 recession, a lot of folks failed to notice that all our talk about the middle class doesn’t define who those people actually are!  A few studies were done, and things got interesting.

The Pew Research Center did a great study on the middle class that I suggest you read.  When they did a survey asking people in the U.S. to define for themselves their class, they found that 2/5 of adults living with $100,000 or more in annual income AND almost half of people living with less than $40,000 both say they’re middle class.  When they did a parallel study using economic and demographic data, they established a middle tier of earners whose income falls between $45,000 and $90,000 for a household of three.  Something isn’t lining up.

J.D. Foster, a senior fellow at the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation, came up against the same problem.  He calls the top 20 percent  of earners upper class, the bottom 20 percent lower class, and the 60 percent in between thusly become middle class, which defines the middle class as those households earning between $25,000 and $100,000 a year.

That paints some pretty broad strokes.  When we bloggers got to talking about this, it became increasingly clear that things aren’t that simple.  We live in a world that defines our economic status not by sheer numbers but by a standard of living.  Choices we make are re-cast as obligations – needs – duties.  Living better; having more – not only are we entitled to it, but we believe we, our loved ones, our families, would suffer without it.  Those of us on the bottom of that middle-class bracket can live remarkably similar lives to folks close to the top, despite the doubled or tripled income – we can still accessorize our family and our lifestyle with yoga classes and soccer teams and music lessons and organic fruits and SAT prep classes and lead a life of relative comfort.  It’s a double-edged sword: while our money can go farther and allow us luxuries that in previous decades it would not, it still disappears fast and faster, and it doesn’t really feel like wealth, because the standards for good health care, for adequate schooling, for healthy food, for transportation, etc., etc., are set and maintained to the needs and wants of a class of wealth that laughs at $100,000.

It doesn’t seem to me that the middle class is disappearing.  After a big rain storm, often times we find our river banks eroded.  The flow of water increases, though, and eventually what was once a contained, sustainable riverbed is washed out – and all that water turns into a wide, slow swamp.  Instead of a driven, focused, defined environment, the area is unproductive, diffuse, and difficult to define.  I believe that that is our middle class.

This post brought to you by Chloe, who eats an organic apple a day to keep the doctor away, but in the event that doesn’t work, she’s fortunate enough to be on her employer’s PPO. 

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