This article presents an overview of the middle class in the United States. Although the American middle class does not conform easily to the models (particularly Marxist class consciousness) that are more evident in other nations, some clear trends can be identified. For example, the divergent voting patterns of the lower-middle class and the upper-middle class are fairly easy to describe, even if those patterns are not consistent over time. There is some evidence that radicalism (or "frustration politics") has resulted from the perceived decline of the middle class, but much of this apparent radicalism appears to assume irregular or volatile patterns in voting rather than actual extremist, fanatical, or fundamentalist tendencies. Although the collective economic fortunes of the middle class took a noticeable turn for the worse in the 1970s, they appear to have remained fairly stable since.
Keywords Class Consciousness; Consumption; Cultural Capital; Economic Capital; Overconformity; Radicalism; Social Norms; Stratification
The observation that the current generation of middle-class households is the first generation in American history to experience a lower standard of living than their parents is now very common. Although the descendents of the "baby boom" generation have generally enjoyed a higher level of educational achievement than their parents, they have also faced higher inflation-adjusted living expenses and often engage in a higher level of consumption (spending) than the earlier generation. According to Lehmann-Haupt (1993), family inheritance, rather than accomplishment, is now likely to provide the primary source of economic opportunity in many middle-class households.
One of the reasons that the older generation of middle-class households, the single providers of which were often employed in the manufacturing sector, is economically secure is that it enjoyed substantial appreciation in the value of its homes. Many of those homes were purchased in the post–World War II era with low-interest mortgages provided through the G.I. Bill or other government programs. The younger generation of middle-income households appears to have reacted to the relative decline in its standard of living primarily though long-term anxiety about the future and that of its children rather than through anger or political activism (Noble, 1993; Reich, 1994). Political radicalism and frustration politics (or "protest voting") flourished in the 1970s, but have arguably declined in more recent decades.
Middle Class Income
The middle class is often characterized as those households earning between 80 and 120 percent of the median household income in their local community. By this measure, the proportion of the population that is middle class fell from 28 percent to 22 percent between 1970 and 2000 (Roberts, 2006). Despite their falling real (that is, inflation-adjusted) wages in recent decades, middle-income households as a group have retained relatively stable levels of assets and savings, while assets have fallen sharply for the bottom 40 percent of earners (Frank, 2007). Also, about twice as many households exit the middle class through downward mobility as through upward (Pressman, 2007).
A rough proportional description of the U.S. population based on income can be broken down into six categories:
- The lowest class or largely unemployed "underclass" at about 12%;
- The working poor at about 13%;
- The working (or "blue-collar") class at about 30%;
- The middle class at about 30%;
- The upper-middle (or "professional") class at about 14%; and
- The capitalist class at about 1% (Gilbert, 2011).
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 the middle 20 percent of the population earned between $40,000 and almost $65,000 (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2013). Financial classifications, however, are highly relative. For example, in 2007, median household incomes ranged from $29,000 in Miami to $68,000 in San Francisco (Bishaw & Semega, 2008). Nonetheless, well over 60 percent of the population claims to be middle class.
Middle Class Values
It can be useful to characterize the middle class in terms of values and social concerns or status. These values and concerns, however, are often discussed — particularly among the lower-middle class — as negative factors such as isolation, voter apathy, or economic insecurity.
C. Wright Mills's influential 1951 book, White Collar: The American Middle Classes predicted several trends that are still prominent. Mills observed, for example, that the working class and the professional class associate culturally with the middle class in both social and political terms. In other words, the non-middle classes often express their views in non-class-related terms (Gerteis, 1998).
The lower middle class tends not to exhibit strong ideological or political affiliation. As such, the lower middle class, in particular, is frequently a crucial demographic group in federal elections; political campaigns tend to appeal to them (Gerteis, 1998). Somewhat ironically, the middle class is often associated with voter apathy. Mills termed the administrative middle-class "strangers to politics . . . Not radical, not liberal, not conservative, not reactionary" (Mills, 1956 , p. 328). This characterization can also be at least partially extended to Mills's view of the social life of the middle class. Kelfalas (2007) argues that the lower middle class is more self-conscious about respectability than either the working class or the upper middle class.
A defining social characteristic of the middle classes has speculatively been defined as "a longing for control" associated with the desire for social and economic security. A slight variation on this characterization for the lower middle class has been termed "keeping up appearances," accompanied by some cynicism about the possibility of upward social mobility. Very broadly, this group tends to be negatively ambivalent about welfare recipients, the federal government, intellectuals, and foreign-born U.S. residents (Kelfalas, 2007, p. 65). Also very broadly, the non-professional middle class are likely to think of themselves as politically conservative; they are also usually charitable and socially generous unless threatened by the loss of social or economic security (Kelfalas, 2007, p. 66).
Heckert and Heckert (2004) posit that the ten most common middle-class behavioral norms are:
- Group loyalty,
- Honesty, and
At least five of these traits — group loyalty, participation, responsibility, conventionality, and courtesy — can arguably be grouped together under the rubric of conformity.
Heckert and Heckert (2004) describe how these traits can either be perceived positively or negatively. A workaholic, for example, may be viewed with disdain by coworkers, but as exceptional by a supervisor; a gifted student may be resented by fellow students, but appreciated by a teacher. In this context, provincialism (or even more disparagingly, parochialism — an excessively local or narrow outlook) can be regarded as negatively perceived overconformity to the value of conventionality and group loyalty. All of these ten social norms can also be subdivided into real (or commonly achievable) social roles and ideal (or "sublime" or exceptional) social roles, but these ten values are primarily relevant in their real or achievable form in this discussion (Heckert & Heckert, 2004).
Self-reported happiness might seem like an unreliable measure of societal health. Frank, however, argues that self-reported happiness (or "subjective well-being") is indeed a reliable indicator of more than one measure of social health: "Happy people agree strongly that 'When I am doing well at something, I love to keep at it,' whereas unhappy people often seem not even to understand what such statements are getting at" (2007, p. 17). Self-reported happiness, or unhappiness, also tends to be consistent over a period of several months or longer, and happiness correlates strongly with minimal absence from work and minimal workplace conflict (Frank, 2007, p. 16, 19).
A survey of political culture in the 1990s, Hunter and Bowman's The State of Disunion found that the working poor and the lower middle class — especially African Americans — were significantly more supportive of "identity politics" based on small group differences, particularly those based on ethnicity, than professionals and the affluent. The wealthy were also found to be substantially more likely to express distrust of the federal government than the middle classes. About 75 percent of those surveyed were at least "pleased" with their jobs, and more than 90 percent indicated that their childhood and current family life were mostly happy or better (Steinfels, 1996). These categories — arguably including happiness — tend to coalesce in studies of changing middle-class voting patterns during late twentieth-century recessions.
Gerteis (1998) attempts to find a functional approach to describing class roles or class consciousness in the U.S. using surveys about self-reported political and ideological loyalty. A possible avenue emphasizes social status as opposed to material self-interest. Gerteis argues that this approach accounts for voting patterns during the political and economic crises of the early 1970s, but that the recession of the early 1990s is not as easily explained. The surveys from both periods indicate that professionals claimed to be strongly "engaged": they identified themselves firmly as liberals or conservatives and with either Democrats or Republicans. Lower-middle-class workers, however, consistently identified themselves as neutral both in terms of ideological and party loyalty.
In this model, intellectuals — including the clergy, academics, researchers, social workers, and professionals in cultural fields — are generally left-leaning and derive self-worth from cultural capital, including prestigious possessions and credentials that can potentially be used for exclusionary purposes. Engineers, managers, and corporate executives that tend to be right-leaning derive self-worth from economic capital or straightforward wealth. These differences can be easily mapped onto a political landscape. The lower middle class — including sales people, accountants, clerks, and teachers — tend to be centrists and devoid of the...
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