There are a lot of articles out there with some variation on the title “Are you considered middle class?” I suppose that is not surprising. The middle class is a hot topic these days, as everyone wants to save it from shrinking out of existence, and maybe provide it some tax breaks while they’re at it. What is surprising, is that not one of the articles posing that question seems to be able to answer it. Which got me wondering:
Why is it so hard to define the middle class? And why is it that most people believe they are middle class no matter how much, or how little, they make? One fascinating article in The Atlantic tries to answer these exact questions. Anat Shenker-Osorio writes in his “Taxonomy of how we talk about class and wealth in America:”
Researching how people’s unconscious assumptions affect their perception of economic issues, I explored the linguistic dynamics behind the term “middle class,” especially in comparison to other economic groupings. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a database of more than 450 million words from speeches, media, fiction, and academic texts, among the most common words (excluding conjunctions and prepositions among others) co-occurring with “middle class” we find “emerging,” “burgeoning,” “burdened,” and “squeezed.” These tell us what happens to this grouping. Absent are quantitative terms or descriptors for what life is like within this category. In fact, in common usage, we rarely hear about actual people named within it; middle class may as well describe a grouping of potted plants or pop cans. There’s little here tied to income or lifestyle.
Conversely, statements about “the wealthy” co-occur with terms like “investors,” “businessmen,” “patrons,” “owners,” and “donors.” What these words indicate is a sense of sources of income and, by extension, the amount compensated. The wealthy, in our language, aren’t acted upon but rather act as human members of a group who get things done and pay themselves to do it.
“Poor,” once the meaning of low quality is filtered out, comes with “guy” and “girl” but also “homeless,” “sick,” “plight,” “needy,” and “suffering.” Those descriptors provide a sense what it’s like to be in this group day to day, and they make pretty clear it’s made up of people who aren’t allowed any or much income.
Shenker-Osorio goes on to remind us of all the examples of wealth we see on television and in the media, via “reality” TV like The Real Housewives or Keeping up with the Kardashians. If that kind of money depicts the rich, even people making $500,000 aren’t going to identify as being rich themselves. As for the poor, while we’d rather not see poverty, the idea of the panhandler, or homeless person is a salient one, and with that as a defining image, people are unlikely to call themselves “poor.” “Not finding popular depictions of wealth and poverty similar to our own lived experiences,” Shenker-Osorio goes on to say, “we determine we must be whatever’s left over. Picking “middle class” is easy enough to do because, again, the language doesn’t present much to go on in terms of what this label describes.”
Looking to others, and seeing that they have more, could be why many in the upper class, and even the rich, believe they are middle class. One U.S. News Money article suggests that when we know how much people like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Mitt Romney are worth, it is easy for the rich to say, “well I’m not in that group, so I must be middle class.”
The article goes on to point out that it’s not all that illogical to feel that way. The difference between the true middle class (making around $50,000 a year) and the top 20% (making around $103,000 a year) is only $53,000, which isn’t all that much. But the difference between a family making $100K a year and a millionaire making $900K a year is a difference that is nearly 17 times as great.
“As you work your way up the income ladder, inequality grows,” he says. “If people make $104,096 per year, which puts them in the richest 20 percent of the population, they feel ‘relatively’ poor because they compare themselves to people in the top 1 percent of the income distribution – people making over $500,000, but primarily millionaires.”
This really hit home for me. I was convinced that I wasn’t upper class because I can afford the life I imagined the middle class had access to, and nothing more. In my mind, the upper class could always take vacations, and buy nice things without credit cards, and basically do, or have, whatever they wanted.
In my late twenties and early thirties, all my friends from college were making more than I was, significantly so. My three best girl friends are a lawyer, an MD and high-up New York City employee, each making well over six figures. For years they met up annually in some exotic locale and enjoyed the sites, along with each other’s company. They were clearly upper class, while I, stuck at home (a trip to Thailand completely out of my reach), was middle class.
Looking back, I recognize a similar comparison mindset growing up: my dad was at the height of his career during the Internet/tech boom, when those lucky few who got in at the ground floor made millions when their start up went public. Many of his friends made their fortunes that way, and were able to retire (semi- or completely) in their 40’s or 50’s. These friends bought lavish mansions, trading in their new cars for something newer every few years and living extravagant lives, all in one the most expensive areas in the country. My dad chased that dream for the rest of his life, many times leaving the relative stability of one job to be at the ground floor somewhere else. But instead of cashing in stock options, he usually ended up getting laid off, and the only reason we maintained our lifestyle through those stressful times was the deep savings accounts my mom cultivated. Surely we couldn’t be upper class when our friends had so much, and my father endured long stretches of unemployment. The contrast made it impossible.
They say comparison is the thief of joy, but it can also misconstrue reality, especially when it’s based primarily on assumption. A quick glance at my peers suggests that everyone we know is doing as well as, if not better, than we are. But the reality is I don’t know how much familial help they have, or if they are willing to put that European vacation on a credit card. I don’t know if they got a scholarship to send their kid to the primary school that costs $30K a year, or if they are scrimping and saving all year to pay for that really nice summer camp at the creativity museum. Just because someone has something I don’t, doesn’t mean they are more financially secure than I am.
According to this article at USNews Money, our income (over $150,000) puts us in the top 5% of earners in the United States. The same article declares that those who make $250,000 a year are in the top 1% (though a different article from Slate claims that earning $250K a year puts you in the top 2% and you need to make $395,000 to be so reviled by the other 99%, which is a significant difference).* I know people who fall into those income strata, and I can assure you they don’t self-identify as the top 1% or 2%. I definitely don’t feel like I’m in the top 5%. When your peers seem to be affording the same life you live, or one with even more amenities, it’s hard to maintain perspective.**
The reality is that as a country we carry over $1 TRILLION dollars in credit card debt, and that 75% of households don’t have enough in liquid savings to cover an unexpected expense of $400. Over three fourths of the generation that is getting ready to retire does not have nearly enough saved to live off of. Most households are one accident, illness or layoff away from complete financial devastation.
Sitcoms and commercials have been portraying the American middle class since television’s inception, and their depiction rarely wavers. These images of a warm home and quirky family make it easy for anyone to recognize their own life on the screen. We all share the same basic hopes and fears, no matter how much money we make. We all want the same things for our family, and see ourselves working hard to achieve them. It’s no wonder that most people see themselves as being middle class, even if they fall outside the considerable spectrum.
But there is something else at play, an important piece of the psychological puzzle. I believe it is more important than the muddling lack of quantitative terms describing the middle class and more pervasive than the illusion of comparison. I think it may even be the determining factor in a person’s own perception of where they fall in America’s economic class system–I have identified it as the single biggest reason I find it so hard to recognize myself as upper class. What could this missing puzzle piece be? More on that tomorrow…
Do you find yourself comparing your financial situation to those of others? Does doing that make you feel more, or less, financially secure?
*Yet another article claims that if you make $115K a year you’re in the top 10% earners, which means that, according to the numbers from Pew Center Research, you can be middle class and be in the top 10% of earners. I don’t really understand that.
**Touching on upper earners and fluctuating incomes, I found these numbers from the Slate article very interesting:
Those affluent moments are more common than you might think. More than 76 percent of Americans get to experience the joys of a six-figure household income for at least one year, just more than half will make $150,000 or more at some point, and about 20 percent hit the $250,000 mark at least once, which these days would put them within the top 2 percent of earners.
But incomes are erratic. According to Rank and his collaborators, just half of Americans hit six figures for five or more years, and only one-third manage it for a decade total. Meanwhile, less than 2 percent cross the quarter-million-dollar threshold for at least 10 years of their lives. Just 1 percent do it for 10 consecutive years.