Who is the middle class?

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It is election season with voting day just a few weeks away. As in every election recently it seems all candidates are trying to woo the middle class. But who is the middle class? Nobody seems to ask that question but I think it is one of the great bits of demagoguery around. People with opposite values claim they have “middle class values.” We’ve always been told that the United States is a middle class society. I believe that is true, but what is the middle class? Most Americans, I believe, identify themselves as middle class. Nobody wants to be lower class and it is unpopular to be upper class. If I got it right, we are being told that the middle class is suffering while the lower class and the upper class are doing well.

I grew up in 1950’s northeast Minneapolis, Minnesota. We always thought of it as a “working class neighborhood” or “blue collar neighborhood.” For those old enough to remember television shows like “Lavern and Shirley,” a comedy sitcom about two young women in a working class neighborhood in 1950’s Milwaukee, Wisconsin, our neighborhood was not unlike theirs. For example, the young women were portrayed as working as bottle cappers in a brewery. Northeast Minneapolis had a whole row of breweries along the Mississippi River, which was also one of the borders of the neighborhood. The neighborhood was made up of various nationality groups, including Polish. Nordeast, as locals called it, was the home of the “polish Jokes” that were popular at one time. There were several small factories in the area

By the time I was in high school my family moved across the river to a suburb just outside of North Minneapolis. Now think about the show ”Happy Days” from the same era as “Lavern and Shirley.” It portrayed what was a lifestyle much like our new digs. It was generally described as “middle class. “We were a bit more oriented to “white collar” jobs. My wife went to school in the more inner city North high school which, at that time, had a large Jewish population and many people who went on to be in high class careers, even movie stars.

Lavern & Shirley

Ben Franklin on business

Basically, at one time in Europe society was mostly made up of nobles and serfs. Along the way a problem arose in that neither class had much of what we call “capital.” The church at the time had beliefs that it was not proper to make money from money and therefore there was nobody to do the commercial work of banking etc. As is the reality everywhere, some groups of people take on work that others can’t or won’t do. The work of banking and lending money fell to the Jewish population. They were people who were looked down upon and the fact that they were willing to work with money made them even lower in the eyes of the rest of the population.

In later times the idea of money handling became recognized as a necessary function of business and others entered into business. Since the business man was neither in the upper class of nobles, nor the lower class of the peasants, they became known as the “middle class.” Because of remnants of bias against business many of these merchant class people migrated to the “colonies” where they were less hampered by the government. The American Revolution was fought in large part against what they thought were unreasonable restrictions on doing business. Our founding fathers were largely of the merchant class or in other words “middle class.” For example, Paul Revere was a silversmith making things out of silver for sale; Benjamin Franklin was a newspaper publisher as well as other things.

When President Calvin Coolidge said that” the business of America is business,” he was speaking to a reality. If we really want a middle class society than it makes sense to get people with business savvy to run it. It has not always worked out as Hubert Hoover was highly successful in business but made the mistake of raising taxes and feeling the need to “do something” for the economy. He was blamed for the depression although his successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took Hoover’s ideas and applied them. They didn’t work for him either, but he managed to blame Hoover whenever things didn’t work out. Only the Second World War pulled us out of the Great Depression.

Whichever side you listen to, be wary when they talk about the middle class. Maybe even ask them “who is the middle class?”

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Comments 29 comments

Larry Wall 4 years ago

You made an excellent point when you explained that there was the working class. Most people think there is the upper class, middle class and the poor people. The working class is what I call the real middle class. My father worked at one of the chemical plants in the city. I went to public schools. We moved from one side of a busy highway to the other side and we were suddenly. Today, I am not working, but own my home and have no long term debt. Am I Middle Class, senior class, or just not trying class. At age 61 I still here people tell me I could find a job if I wanted. So, I guess the middle class is that group of people who worked most of their life, has little debt and a plan for retirement. However, the definitions are constantly changing, so to answer your question, the middle class is a moving target that is adjusted to fit the political climate of the day.


Single With Kids profile image

Single With Kids 4 years ago from Cheshire, UK

This reminds me of a similar discussion on British TV. A lady was interviewed and claimed she was middle class. When questioned about it, her reply was she couldn't possibly be working class because she'd never worked and was on benefits..... ;-)


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi Larry, Yes, not only was there a working class but people who were proud of it. From that standpoint there seems to be more class mobility now. Many people that I worked with as middle management people started in jobs like machinists. My parents had less than high school educations but my father was in a skilled trade with aspirations of owning his own business. If he hadn't died young he might have done that. Three boys in the family became college graduates. My sister married a man who also started in the same neighborhood but mad a lot of money as a salesman and moved to middle class suburbs. Today, many folks in trades live in middle class suburbs. I've also found many farmers with college education. None of it fits the old images. Thanks for commenting.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Single with Kids, that is an amusing story. I am not sure exactly what working class means to the English. In the united States it was largely people who worked in factories, mines or skilled trades. I imagine it means about the same there.


Davesworld profile image

Davesworld 4 years ago from Cottage Grove, MN 55016

You could break things into three classes:

Lower Class - insufficient income or no job and thereby not able to or just barely able to make it on their own.

Middle Class - sufficient income from work to be able to survive on their own.

Upper Class - don't have to have a job or ever have had one to survive, often times quite handsomely.

I think the old "working class" and/or "trade class" have gone away. These days they generally earn enough to qualify as middle class. In my life I went through the first two of those states and, unfortunately, never made it to the last.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Davesworld, that works if class is merely economic. How2ever, if that is all it is than the concept is not very important. However, I think there are cultural factors, such as the middle class being the merchant or business class. My father made good money working in his trade but he wanted his own shop. To him the middle claasss would have meant being "the boss."

Thanks for commenting.


Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas

Very interesting Hub, dahoglund -- when the subject of "class" comes up I always think of my granny. We were poor as church mice but as she came from a prominent Texas family she always considered herself "upper class." It's interesting how the "class" thing is viewed in people's minds and what attributes are attached to it. Best/Sis


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks sis. I know working class people who work in white collar jobs but have the attitudes of the blue collar workers. I know white "middle class" people who do not make as much money but share the attitudes of the "middle class." I do recall a Sociology textbook that maintained that writers have a foot in both camps. Take an Earnest Hemingway, for example. In my short time as a reporter I found one has to be able to blend into various groups.


drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

Very thoughtful analysis of the middle class, Don. I remember - long ago - learning that the middle class was actually made up of three classes: the lower middle class, the middle middle class (I know, redundant), and the upper middle class.

The lower middle class were mostly blue collar workers. The upper middle were professionals not quite wealthy enough yet to be lower upper class. And the middle class was all those in between.

And oh, yes, the upper class also had 3 divisions.


Single With Kids profile image

Single With Kids 4 years ago from Cheshire, UK

I agree - class definition isn't merely economic but open to other factors. It's not just the money you earn but your whole attitude, aspirations and outlook on life, cultural factors and indeed your education. This is more likely to blur the boundaries between the working and middle classes than others, but is part of the reason class is so difficult to define.


ib radmasters profile image

ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

The predominant middle class are government employees, so maybe upper middle class when you factor in all their benefits, and pensions.


Davesworld profile image

Davesworld 4 years ago from Cottage Grove, MN 55016

But if you leave the definition of what is "middle class" to individuals themselves, you will end up with literally millions of definitions. And if you have millions of definitions, nothing meaningful can be accomplished by a discussion of the "mddle class," much less attempt to address any relevant issues.


Larry Wall 4 years ago

dahoglund,

To follow up on your last comment, I fall into that category. I grew up blue collar union household. As a reporter and in my PR job, I was a white collar professional, but when I attended my son's T-Ball and other games, I always hung around with the Dads who were delivery drivers, plant workers, carpenters, and avoided the lawyers and accountants. I did not mind growing up blue collar. Some people do. My Dad worked for the same company for 30 years, kept a roof over our heads, kept us fed and help send me to college.


Davesworld profile image

Davesworld 4 years ago from Cottage Grove, MN 55016

My only point was to find some commonly accepted basis for a definition. If we allow everybody to decide what constitutes the "middle class" for themselves, we will likely have millions of different definitions and no meaningful dialogue is possible.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

drjb, the definition you mention I recall as a sociological definition of the middle class. The thing is, I am not sure it is valid anymore . Probably since the Second world War society is much more mobile and less structured than it was. So many men from the working class went to college on the GI bill and became white collar workers. they also adopted many of the attitudes of the middle class. Our founders would be in that upper middles class or as my history professor would express it: UMCA Upper middle class aristocracy. An ironic take off on the idea that the new world had no aristocracy. Thanks for commenting.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

single with kids, if I recall my sociology courses correctly, I think the factors you mention were all discussed. I was in college in the 1950s, a time when much of this was ian transition I think. I tend to think that how people think cultural issues may be more of a factor than economic. This may be more true where you are. In the 19th century there was a trend written about by writers such as Henry James of rich Americans nad poverty struck European nobles getting married in ordeer for the american to gain social status and the European who had the status to gain economic security.

Thanks for the additional comment.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

ib radmasters,

I wish I had the economic security to go along with being placed into the upper middle class. It is rather a generalization to place all government workers in the same basket. Many corporations have higher pay and greater benefits than Federal government from which I am retired.

There are different levels of government workers, Federal, state, City etc.

The larger organizations have a variety of workers at different levels and diffident occupations. Where I worked Engineers got higher pay than the rest of us at the same level, probably because it is hard to find engineers willing to work for the government.

In my case, I worked under Civil service which was being destroyed because of the mandates for affirmative action. There is the Senior Executive service which is not under Civil Service and has higher pay limits.

There are a range of workers from trades--such as machinists, clerks, accountants--odd. Sort of the same thing you see in private companies.

Do you feel the mail clerk or clerk are upper middle class?

Thanks for commenting but I was middle class before I was a government employee and never upper class.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Davesworld, I was largely addressing the use of the term "middle Class" in politics. I think it is deliberately used because it has a different meaning to everyone and almost everyone thinks of themselves as middle class or aspires to be. Thus by saying they care about the middle class it sound like they care about "you." In turth there are several establsihed defintions of middle class now,.There is the hisroical definition of being the rising merchant class on which our country was somewhat based on. there is the sociological definition of lower middle class, middle middle class etc. There is the definition I grew up with of middle class being the white collar workers who made above a certain income. I personally prefer the definition that includes costumes, attitudes and values.

I am not sure it is possible to have one definition that we all agree on. I am only really concerned about the abuse of the term in political propaganda by politicians on all sides.

Thanks for your comments.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi Larry, your experience is probably typical in a way. My brothers and I all went to college. Our parents came from rural backgrounds and did not even go to high school. Dad got into what was a prestigious trade that paid well, except that most people didn't know what he did, He was a photo engraver. He should have told people he was a printer. Or he could have said he was a graphic artist, although that might not have meant anything to people either. He did seek status by doing things like buying mother a fur coat that she really didn't want. He wanted to show people he could afford such things.

My brother is a retired social worker but does not feel comfortable with middle class values.


ib radmasters profile image

ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

dagoglund

I don't know how long you have been away from the government but my point is that the government workers from GS1 to GS15 are better than their equivalent private sector counterparts.

A GS1 does certainly better than someone doing their type of job at Walmart or Home Depot. And the ones that you say are doing well in the private sector are in the upper class, even if they are only in the lower part of the upper class.

Most private sector non union workers today work under the At Will Employment Contract which is the opposite of job security. To be accurate in defining a class you have to look at the working years and the retiring years. And in that definition you have to include the government workers as low to high middle class.

The important of job security afforded the government employee compared to even a current private sector person that is in the middle class is longevity. The private sector doesn't today afford the worker to an uninterrupted stability to amass your savings and then retire with a large percentage of what you earned before you retired.

So I guess we see the middle class from different perspectives.

But the fact is that the private sector middle class is sinking, while the government employees in the middle class are stable to better.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

id radmaster, I've been retired for a dozen years about. My pension, I think, is in the ballpark of what I would have gotten from social security if I had been under that. Current employees are under social security.

One thing I think could use reform in private industry is pensions. I have known a few people who have gotten cheated out of their pensions by the corporations they worked for. In government we do have a vested interested in our pensions and benefits because we pay into them. A factor that is overlooked. Unions seem to me are a bigger problem. They go on strick for more money without thought whether the employer can afford it or not. Federal Unions can't strick.

I am most bothered that the Civil service has been totally undermined by politcal interests. I was one of the last employees to be hired on a competitive test.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 4 years ago from Chicago

Great article. Thank you. I always thought the Middle Class was most Americans, probably 80%, that are neither poor nor rich. People who work or retired from working all their lives.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for commenting James. I think most people do consider themselves middle class. The problem as I see it is that politicians talk about doing this or that for the middle class but they do not define it. Since there are various ideas as to who is middle class I find it hard to know who they are going to help.


rajan jolly profile image

rajan jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

Interesting analysis here, dohoglund.

To me, the middle class is that group of people who has to work perforce to not only sustain themselves but maintain a certain standard of living.

The lower class do not worry about maintaining any such standard as their prime aim is to earn to exist.

The upper class are those who work not out of necessity but more out of choice.

voted up, interesting.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

rajan jolly, Yours also seems like a reasonable analysis.The main thing I was trying to get at in this hub has to do with The American elections. Candidates and supporters are constantly making references to the "middle class" without defining it. In the United

States it seems to me the majority of people identify with the middle class and thus they would feel that the candidate is referring to them and their interests. Thanks for commenting.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

Hi Don,

I agree that the politicians aim their speeches toward appealing to the middle class which is the majority of people in the U.S. The European meaning of aristocracy did not carry over here and we do not support kings, queens, princes, dukes and so forth just because of their line of birth. To be classy also has another meaning. Well mannered and polite can be considered classy and it does not matter how rich or poor a person is to exhibit those standards. I think that blue collar and white collar carry more meaning today rather than class...and the money can be lower or higher in either job. That is not "set in stone." Many plumbers make more money than teachers as an example. Interesting discussion! Up votes and sharing.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi Peggy, we are a "classless, middle class society," as my history prof would express it. I don't essentially care about class. What bothers me is that the term "middle class" is used so much without defining it. That leaves the listener to fill in the blank. Thanks for the vote and shareing.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon

Excellent point I get tired of class warfare in elections... we have a bunch of rich politicians trying to invoke class envy to get themselves elected. It's stupid.

Thanks for the history lesson.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I agree. The definitions of middle class are such that without further information any seems to be able to claim middle class status. Thanks for commenting.

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