"What is Ohio's Middle Class?"

On Aug. 14, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney rolled through Ohio on his "The Romney Plan for a Stronger Middle Class" Bus Tour. Two weeks earlier, president-and-candidate Barack Obama made his own appeal to Ohio's "average middle-class family" on his ninth campaign stop in the state. Both campaigns have placed Ohio and the middle class at the core of their messages. Each insists that they will protect and improve the middle class's well-being, while the other will destroy it for the sake of the super-rich in one case, the welfare-state in the other. As Ohioans find themselves at the center of all this attention (often unfortunately so, being on the receiving end of 400 political ads per day), I set out to find out what it means to be in Ohio's middle class, from Ohioans themselves. As it happens, the lower end of the spectrum is lower than Obama, Romney, and our national psyche might realize.

Billy, a tall and fit 59 year old from Cleveland, considers himself middle class. He didn't grow up that way, though. He used to be on public assistance, which he "couldn't wait to get off" as he was "never satisfied getting handouts." Once he did get off of it, he apparently entered the ranks of the middle class. For him, and others I spoke with, public assistance is the dividing line. But it is a precarious borderline at best. Approaching retirement age, the national economy took a dive and Billy was laid off his job at Ohio Savings. He spent nearly a year unemployed, though he managed to get by with some Internet entrepreneurship, food stamps, unemployment and, as a veteran, some assistance from the VA. He gave up cable TV and sold his car. He has since found work in telemarketing but he has no plans to pay for cable or a car again. That's because Billy has given up on the idea of job security: "There's just no such thing." No cable, no car, no job security, and yet Billy is confidently middle class.

Arianna is optimistically moving up into Billy's version of the middle class. A 25-year-old young woman from Glenville, she works full time as a bank teller, attends Cleveland State University full time, and does community event planning on the side. She doesn't mind balancing out so many commitments, because she loves studying public relations. But at one point she had to "sit out for a little bit." Although her father was laid off at the start of the recession, her mother's income, then alone supporting the whole family, was "too much" to qualify Arianna for financial aid. Her tuition, around $25,000, exceeds her full-time income of about $22,000. So, of course, Arianna takes loans to pay for school. She expects to be $50-60,000 in debt upon graduation, and wants to keep going to pursue a master's degree as well. "I'm not stopping. So I'll probably be in debt for the rest of my life." In debt and, as Arianna believes, "getting closer" to the middle class.

Rhonda knows something about debt, and she is raising her son Jordan as best she can to ensure that he goes to college on scholarship. Rhonda is a single mother and was herself the daughter of a teenage single mother. In May 2011 she received an undergraduate degree in social work from Ursuline College, one year before her son begins his own college applications. For a year before graduation the only work she could get was as an unpaid intern. Knowing the challenge that would pose, she prepared her son by telling him, "'Listen, we're going to have to go apply for food stamps, 'cause while I'm interning I don't know how we're going to eat,' cause you know, some kids are embarrassed." After that hardship year, the organization hired Rhonda on a full-time basis. Still, she thinks she could use a part-time job for extra wages to live more comfortably. She wants to buy a house, and she really wants to go on a vacation. Rhonda has never been on vacation, or even been on an airplane. She reflects, "I've never been on a vacation. Ever. I want to go to Niagara Falls. I want to go to Disney. I want to go to one of the islands. I've never been on a vacation. Ever." And "oh yeah," she considers herself middle class.

Rana B. Khoury is an independent writer researching the impact of the economic downturn on Ohioans. She blogs at http://ranakhoury.com.