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Oh, to be Middle Class!

Once upon a time breaking into the middle class was a cherished dream for poor and working class families. The possibility of a secure income to feed a family, educate children, take a summer vacation, perhaps even own a little house, was about as good as it could get. The middle class meant real choices for families previously bound by their poverty to a narrow, constricted future. Good manufacturing jobs, the explosive growth of suburbs, federally subsidized highways, strong unions, rapid expansion of public colleges and universities, and the general post-World War II economic expansion made the middle class and its choices possible for millions.

A lot has happened since the 1970s. Inequality has grown steadily as income for middle class families stagnated while income for a small percentage at the top has soared. Indeed, income for the top 1% has grown so dramatically that most of those in the top 10% are feeling a bit, well, underprivileged. As the gross inequities in our economic ladder become more and more apparent, and with the political class making the crisis of inequality its platform, the middle class with its respectability has become highly desirable again. The poor have always wanted to join the ranks of the middle class. But now it’s also the wealthy and near wealthy who want to break back in. What?

It’s not, of course, that the wealthy want to reduce their income. It’s that they desire the “status” of the middle class, a share of the sense of injustice and unfairness now being lavished on the beleaguered middle class, and protection from policies that may increasingly ask the wealthy and near-wealthy to bear their fair share of providing for the common good. Better these days to be among the comfortably disadvantaged than among the awkward or embarrassed elite. Better still to have all the privileges of the elite with the status of the middle class. Witness the outcry of those with incomes in the $150,000 to $200,000 range who cried foul when President Obama targeted them with an elimination of tax credits for tuition plans. “We’re just middle class folk, struggling to put our kids through school!”

This all came to the fore a couple of weeks ago when a University of Michigan student wrote a piece in the student newspaper that began, “My family’s household income is $250,000 a year, but I promise you I am middle class. I live in a $2 million house, but I promise you I am still middle class.” Jesse Klein’s blog is not as crass as her opening lines suggest. It is in fact a rather thoughtful piece about how we weigh relative wealth in relation to varied costs of living, availability of disposable cash, etc. Jesse’s family lives in Palo Alto, famous for its astronomical housing costs. Compared to a classmate from Grand Rapids from a family with comparable income, she has a lot less money to toss around. Give her credit for bravery. She’s attracted lots of angry reaction for her willingness to ask some awkward but honest questions.

That said, I’m not sure it’s useful or responsible for relatively wealthy people like Jessie or me to spend a lot of our time trying to break into the middle class. Billionaire Bruce Rauner, governor of Illinois, may want us all to know he wears an old Timex and drives an ancient pick-up truck. But we know the truth. He’s rich, rich, rich. No, I suggest we stop asking ourselves, “Am I still safely in the middle class?” and instead ask, “Do I have the luxury of choices in life?”

  • Can I choose what kind of house and what kind of neighborhood I want to live in? Jessie’s family has a huge mortgage, but no one put a gun to their heads and said you have to buy in Palo Alto.
  • Can I choose to live in an excellent school district where my kids are guaranteed a good education, or am I stuck in a district with troubled public schools and predatory charter school operators?
  • Can I select my doctors and choose among the various medical providers available to me in my community, or is the public hospital, clinic, or VA all I can use?
  • Can I choose whether to own a car and drive myself where I need to go, using public transportation only if and when it’s more convenient?
  • Can I offer my child multiple options for higher education or am I confined to few options or no options at all?
  • Can I shop at Goodwill or the Dollar Store because it’s what I like, or must I shop there because it’s all I can afford?
  • Can I choose to spend my income now, or opt instead to save a good portion of it for my retirement?

Instead of counting our assets, we’re much better off, morally speaking, counting our choices. Instead of trying to break back into the middle class, those of us who are rich or near-rich, or at least very comfortable would do well to consider the luxury of our many choices. Expanding definitions to allow ourselves back securely within the middle class fold may make us more comfortable with our economic status or allow us to feel politically less vulnerable right now. But I’d suggest a far more meaningful exercise for Jesse and her friends, or for you and for me: Consider the choices we have in life, and the benefits, and freedoms, and privileges those choices offer. To be sure, those choices are based largely, though not solely, on our income. But the luxury of these choices is real and concrete, not just relative, and acknowledging that luxury can lead to gratitude rather than resentment. Even more it can teach us to be compassionate toward those whose life choices, for whatever reason are few.

John H. Thomas
February 26, 2015                                                                      

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