OFFBEAT: Middle class is a moving target and a state of mind

Assistant news editor, Sandusky Register Describing "middle class' is like the famous attempt to
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010


Assistant news editor, Sandusky Register

Describing “middle class” is like the famous attempt to define pornography: We’re not quite sure what it is, but we know it when we see it.

It’s a club more than half of us claim to be a part of, but the qualifications seem to be different for everyone.

A few years ago, I thought owning a home was the ultimate key to getting in. For my parents and grandparents, home ownership cemented them into solid middle-class standing.

But for my husband and me, the day we moved into a Shaker Village apartment was the day we decided we’d “arrived.”

What does “middle class” mean to you? Has that definition changed in recent years?

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We actually looked at houses for about a minute, then decided we didn’t want the risk of getting stuck with something we couldn’t sell — or an endless pit of repairs that gulped up all our money. So we revised our definition of what “middle class” meant to us. It doesn’t mean we’ll stop setting goals for ourselves, but we’re finally happy with where we are for now.

We’re not the only ones who stretch the traditional boundaries to insist we’re part of the club.

About 53 percent of American adults identify themselves as “middle class,” but their incomes vary greatly, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

In fact, four out of ten Americans with annual incomes below $20,000 say they are “middle class,” while a third of people who make more than $150,000  say the same thing.

Many are barely getting by, but desperately convince themselves they’re still part of this massive group whose membership has no real boundaries.

In fact, when asked to estimate how much money it takes for a family of four to live a middle class lifestyle in their community, the median of all responses was $70,000. That’s close to the research center’s estimate of $68,698 a year, based on Census Bureau data.

In Sandusky, the median household income was only a little more than $31,000. It’s relatively cheap to live here, but I can’t imagine raising a “middle class” family with that budget.

 Barack Obama campaigned on the promise to rescue middle class families. But many politicians can’t even agree on what that means.

If you ask House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “middle class” means making $350,000 or less a year. That seems a little out of touch with reality, considering that in 2007, only 15 percent of households in Manhattan made more than $200,000, according to the Tax Foundation.

Before he was elected, Obama defined “middle class” as anyone making $250,000 or less per year and promised that group — 95 percent of all Americans — wouldn’t see a tax increase.

Now it’s beginning to look like they will — and suddenly, the White House definition of middle class income is plummeting. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said he won’t rule out new taxes for the middle class. He’s kept his statements vague but said some “very hard choices” will have to be made to offset massive deficits.

The administration still insists it’s concerned about the plight of the middle class and even formed a task force for “Middle Class Working Families,” though it’s not clear what they’ve done so far other than occasionally post new blogs on their Web site.

The blogs mostly confirm what we’ve long suspected — the middle class is disappearing as the gap between the haves and have-nots widens.

Income concentration, measured as the share of income going to the top 1 percent of households, was higher in 2007 (23.5 percent) than in any year since 1913 except for 1928, the year before the stock market crashed.

Declining industry has caused us to wonder whether the middle class as we know it is doomed.

But it’s hard to say, when so many people still claim they’re a part of it — and those who might not be otherwise can pretend for a while with credit cards.

The standards of a middle-class existence have undoubtedly risen, too.

A generation ago, “middle class” didn’t come with computers, cell phones or cable — and health care was much more basic. People also had pensions and didn’t have to worry about outliving their retirement savings by 30 years.

There’s more pressure on the middle class than ever before — but so many of us are still finding ways to belong to it.

For some, it means making enough to save something every month. For others, it’s a college education or a salaried job — even if the pay doesn’t compare to what they might have made at a factory.

Maybe it’s more of a mentality than a list of required income and belongings.

Harvard assistant professor of economics Lawrence Lindsey summed it up best when he said:

“A middle class person is someone who expects to be self-reliant, unlike the upper class with unearned wealth or the lower class with dependency on society.”

At the end of the day, isn’t that what makes middle class membership a point of pride?