Who is the middle class?
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?”