What Is Middle Class

When one reads 19th century British literature, one of the constant sources of tension is as to who is “a gentleman”. As used in this context, it was a term that applied not merely to manners and honor, but to economic status. A gentleman was not “in trade”. He did not have “a job”. He might own estates which he oversaw, though if he actively worked them his case became much weaker (“gentleman farmer” was more often a term of dismissal as approbation.) He might be a clergyman or a doctor (but not a surgeon — cutting flesh and sawing bone was not manual for a “gentleman.) He might be a military officer. But generally to be a “gentleman” one was expected to live off one’s investments and devote one’s time to either society or unpaid accomplishments. Many accomplishments in fields ranging from literature to philosophy to economics to science during the time period were the work of “gentlemen” who pursued these fields as “hobbies”.

I don’t think this was necessarily a good or healthy attitude towards work, but it’s interesting to me that in the modern US we have nearly diametrically opposed social/economic prejudices. The idle rich could not be more scorned, and it is the object of everyone to claim membership in the “middle class” and ideally to claim “working class roots” as well.

So while in the society of 19th century British novels, everyone wanted to stake claim to being “a gentleman”, even if his claim was in fact pretty tenuous and he was very nearly poor, in the modern US virtually everyone wants to claim to be middle class — few want to admit to being poor, and even fewer want to admit to being rich.

Some may recall this even became in issue in the recent presidential campaign as Rick Warren included in his Saddleback Forum the question for both candidates: What is rich? How much money?

Both candidates were reluctant to name a specific figure, doubtless because there were two dangers present in doing so: Name a number that was too high, and people would accuse you of being “out of touch with America”; but name a number that was too low, and you’d end up offending all of the upper income voters who wanted to think about themselves as “middle class”.

My initial thought would be: By “middle class” most people mean the range of incomes between what they made when they were first married and what they expect to be making five years from now. Whereas by “rich” people mean an income level that they currently don’t see how they can attain to.

But really, that just serves to underline that Americans as a whole want to think of themselves as middle class. Middle class is “us” while rich is “them”.

If I wanted to take an analytical approach, I would make roughly this split looking at the census income tables for households headed by married couples. 17.1% of married families of annual incomes below 35k, so I’d put that as poor to lower-middle-class — though in a few parts of the country 30k would be a fairly comfortable family income, so even that is rather approximate. The 150-200k and 200k+ brackets each contain 6.5% of married families, so would probably draw the line for “upper class” at one of those two lines.

How would you define “middle class”, both in cultural terms and in income range? What does it say about American culture that it is “middle class” that everyone aspires to be perceived as rather than “upper class” as is the case in many more traditional societies?

5 Responses to What Is Middle Class

  • Came across this from a catholic web forum.

    Have you seen it?

  • I had always thought of “rich” as someone who did not *need* to work — that the individual could get by indefinitely with income from investments, savings, etc.

    When one looks at a year’s income to judge whether an individual is “rich” or “middle class” or “poor” risks a distortion if the individual has had either a very good or a very bad year. A “rich” person who has had a bad year may still be able to live quite well. A middle-class person who has one terrific year among average ones will still live a middle-class life.

    Sustained high income, or a large amount of accrued assets define “rich” to me.

  • This is an interesting topic.

    There are a few things that come to mind.

    There is no objective standard to measure, say, poverty. But we know it when we see it because we judge it in relation to circumstances, conditions etc. Obviously, poverty in America is not the same as poverty in Cambodia.

    However, I think of ‘rich’ or ‘middle class’ or ‘poor’, I think of how well, given income, a person can survive within the context of their nation’s economy and how reasonable and easy it is for that person to save money, given basic necessities — food, shelter, clothing, basic health care, minimal leisure.

    A person who is rich, in my view, earns enough to be able to joy the luxuries that the world has to offer and can save to protect their socio-economic status should they not yield as much personal profit in the future or given certain setbacks.

    A person who is in the “middle class” makes a reasonable enough salary to live comfortably and save money for a “rainy day.” However, a few things — job less, medical expenses, children in college — can lead to financial struggles.

    Given this, a person who lives in poverty, obviously lacks the financial resources to make it reasonably in their society and stretched thin on money, hardly saves money and lives pay check to pay check.

    This, of course, isn’t factoring any social pressures — instant gratification, credit card mentalities, luxury lifestyles, etc.

    I think these questions are pertinent. We have this political debate about taxes and spreading the wealth around and we’re not even clear — philosophically — on what we mean, what the consensus of what ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ is, how does one become rich or poor, or whatever. We just yell back and forth, probably using the same words to convey totally different meanings.

  • I would say that most everyone in America is rich, both by historical and by world standards.

  • As BA notes, I think there is a sense in which ending poverty in the U.S. is similar to trying to ensure that every child’s test score is above average. Even when circumstances improve dramatically (cf. U.S. and India), some people are still classified as ‘poor’ relative to the rest.

    Health care is a good example. It would be cheap for the government to provide health care at the level of care available in the 1950’s for everyone. However, because the quality of health care has improved dramatically since then, costs have risen also, and so what would have been great health care fifty years ago is considered very poor today.

    This doesn’t mean that poverty in the U.S. doesn’t cause a great deal of suffering; it does. To say it is less miserable than poverty in India is to damn with very faint praise. However, it can be useful to recognize that poverty is a relative term.

    I thought that Darwin’s (astute) observation about the importance of being middle class in the U.S. or ‘a gentleman’ in 19th century Britain is probably attributable most directly to the comparable wealth of our society (in addition to the need for politicians to pander). The middle class in our society can live fairly comfortably, and there are significant safety nets in place. To be middle class in 19th century Britain was to be one mishap away from destitution.

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