Another Kind of Middle-Class Squeeze
By SAM ROBERTS
New York Times, May 18, 1997
Karl Marx preached it. Last week, New York Gov. George Pataki proclaimed it: Society's have-nots have finally converged with most of the haves into a single class.
Addressing a paramount concern of many New York City apartment dwellers, the governor declared, "My plan to save rent control will insure that every middle-class tenant has the right to remain in their apartment for the rest of their lives if they choose."
And how did the governor define middle-class tenants? As any household making up to $175,000 a year. That places a mere 1 percent of tenants at the mercy of the marketplace, protecting the other 99 percent as solid members of the middle class.
If this sounds more like Groucho than Karl, it's because in America the class struggle has meant trying to fit everyone into the middle. The designation itself seems more an abstract state of mind than a measure of hard currency. What Jefferson viewed as a stabilizing buffer and Tocqueville described as "eager and apprehensive men of small property" has evolved into a mythology of classlessness. "That which in England we call the middle class is in America virtually the nation," Matthew Arnold wrote a century ago.
The middle class is the club that everyone wants to join, despite the downsizing, dependence on more than one wage earner and record amount of consumer debt that make membership so tenuous.
"I never define it by money," says social historian Paul Fussell, whose book, "Class" (Summit, 1983), skewered all but the abject poor. "The middle class is distinguishable more by its earnestness and psychic insecurity than by its middle income."
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich roughly defines middle-class income as between $20,000 and $60,000. The average American household income is about $34,000.
For the first time since the early 1980s recession, more people are identifying themselves as working class than middle class. But when people are asked to choose among lower, middle and upper in most polls -- including surveys taken during the Depression -- more than 8 in 10 Americans describe themselves as middle class. That includes 2 in 10 of the people who make less than $15,000 (that's below the poverty line for a family of four) and more than 9 in 10 of those who make over $75,000.
"I'm not a wealthy man," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich last month, explaining why, despite his $171,500 salary, he needed a loan from former Sen. Bob Dole to pay an Ethics Committee fine. "I'm a middle-class guy."
His former congressional colleague, Fred Heineman, R-N.C., said last year his combined congressional salary and police pension (as an officer in New York City and the chief in Raleigh) of $183,500 made him lower middle class. "When I see someone who is making anywhere from $300,000 to $750,000," Heineman was quoted as saying, "that's middle class."
More Americans may be better off today than in the 1950s. Back then, though, most toiled with the expectation that they would wind up better off. If some identified their parents with the blue-collar Kramdens, their own models were the white-collar Cleavers.
"Americans, especially, have blurred strictly economic class boundaries by reason of their hopes, not necessarily their wealth," wrote the historian Loren Baritz.
Having wealth doesn't hurt.
Almost everybody today has a television set; more Americans have two or more cars than have one or none. But it often costs more to get well, go to college (a four-year degree has become a minimal middle-class standard) or buy a house.
The National Association of Realtors reported earlier this month that nearly half of America's families don't make enough to qualify for a mortgage on a $119,400 median priced home.
And in New York City, a couple making $150,000 a year and budgeting 25 percent of their after-tax income on housing could afford about $2,000 a month for rent, which is a luxury rate but does not guarantee luxury accommodations. (Under Pataki's proposal, the rent for many tenants who make more than $175,000 a year could be deregulated; that process, called luxury decontrol, now applies to people who make more than $250,000.)
"In order to be middle class as our culture is coming to understand the term," Barbara Ehrenreich has written, "one almost has to be rich."
And remain rich. Among working couples, if the lesser paid spouse were laid off, half the couples in the top one-fourth of earners would fall into the middle half (with middle-class incomes ranging from $20,000 to $60,000), according to a survey for The New York Times by the Program for Applied Social Research at Queens College of the City University of New York. Fully one-third of earners in the middle half would slip into the bottom quarter.
"The rising tide lifted all boats in the '50s, the '60s, the '70s," Reich said last year. "Since then, the rising tide has lifted the yachts."
High expectations increase frustration when people are working two jobs and falling deeper into debt. "That disillusionment feeds on itself," Reich says, "and becomes easy prey for politicians who want to place the blame on immigration, affirmative action, welfare and other things that are not the underlying cause."
Going back at least to Franklin D. Roosevelt, politicians described the middle class as forgotten Americans -- remembering them often enough, though, to enact tax deductions and other benefits that might be denounced as giveaways to the rich or handouts for the poor. Maybe that's because the middle class and the wealthy are more likely to vote than the poor.
Definitions of middle-class income depend on variables like the number of wage earners and dependents, the cost of living, whether food stamps are counted and how much wealth has been socked away. It's determined not only by disposable or discretionary income but by how it's spent, which also suggests social class, or to invoke an even more un-American term, status.
Fussell devised a somewhat facetious "living room scale" to assess social class using various middle-class totems. Begin with a score of 100 and then subtract for items like original paintings by family members (minus four points each) and plastic covers on furniture (minus 6) and add points for others (6 for overflow books stacked on the floor and 3 for each family photograph in a sterling silver frame).
Which only goes to show that, as Baritz said, class may be determined less by Marx than by Flaubert. It's the difference between classlessness and no class at all.