Why the Term "Middle Class" Is Meaningless Today

While we all like to think of ourselves as middle class, the wide swath of people that claim that label only illustrates that we don't really have an accurate idea of what it means. The term has become divorced from actual income, making it an abstract idea we apply liberally.
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"Hillary Rodham Clinton calls them 'everyday Americans.' Scott Walker prefers 'hard-working taxpayers.' Rand Paul says he speaks for 'people who work for the people who own businesses.' Bernie Sanders talks about 'ordinary Americans'," writes Amy Chozick in her New York Times article on how the term "middle-class" is disappearing from the list of 2016 presidential contenders' vocabulary.

This makes a lot of sense. In many ways "middle class" is a term that has little meaning these days.

There are a number of reasons for this but two in particular stand out. One, the idea of middle class has become divorced from income, and two, the lifestyle we associate with being middle class is largely unachievable on a middle-class income nowadays.

We like to think of ourselves as middle class. Few want to be considered lower class, or upper class, considering the negative connotations surrounding these terms. "In surveys, more Americans still choose middle class when asked which category they belong to, because they do not want to identify as rich or poor and because no new phrase exists to describe middle-income earners who view their social class as vulnerable. Working class, once associated with manufacturing jobs, now mostly connotes low-paying service jobs," writes Chozick.

As much as we love to think of ourselves as middle class though, the term has become divorced from our actual income.

According to a CNBC survey of millionaires taken earlier this year, 44 percent of responders identified themselves as middle-class, and 40 percent said they were upper middle-class. Only 4 percent described themselves as wealthy or rich, while another 5 percent used the synonym "upper class."

It doesn't end there, though.

Even the wealthiest sub section of the survey, those worth $5 million or more, putting them among the wealthiest 5 percent, still think of themselves as more middle class. Forty-nine percent of those worth $5 million or more define themselves as upper-middle class, while 23 percent define themselves as middle class.

However you cut it, the vast majority of millionaires cling to the middle-class identifier.

Anat Shenker-Osorio, in an article for The Atlantic, explored the linguistic dynamics behind the term middle class:

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.

So while we all like to think of ourselves as middle class, the wide swath of people that claim that label only illustrates that we don't really have an accurate idea of what it means. The term has become divorced from actual income, making it an abstract idea we apply liberally. If we all think we are middle class then the word loses much of its practical meaning, other than being a political catch-all that doesn't offend anyone.

The second reason the term doesn't mean anything these days is that the items and lifestyle we associate with being middle class can no longer be achieved on a middle-class income.

According to IRS data, "99 percent of American households make less than $388,000 a year, and 95 percent make less than $167,000 a year. The true middle in terms of income -- that is, the cutoff to be in the top 50 percent of earners -- is roughly $35,000 a year." On this income, and even on a higher level of income, it's incredibly difficult to own a house, a car, send a child (or children) to college, and generally support a family comfortably. A recent survey suggests that most people (59 percent) believe it "isn't possible or are no longer certain that it's possible to live a middle-class existence and be considered financially secure." A report by The National Low-Income Housing Coalition points out that "a full-time worker needs to earn $18.92 an hour to afford a two-bedroom rental without spending more than 30 percent of income toward rent. (Thirty percent is considered the most one should pay for housing, if you want to manage your money responsibly.)" It appears that middle class may in fact be the new poor.

So even if we do consider ourselves middle class, we can't comfortably afford the life we associate with it. This not only makes the term itself useless, but also dangerously misleading as it's something we have built the "American Dream" around.

"Being in the middle class once guaranteed choices and life without fear that the unexpected would prove catastrophic," concludes Anat Shenker-Osorio in his article. "Now, this is far from the case. Politicians of all stripes will continue to claim allegiance to the middle class, but that's just because they're hoping we don't notice it's a brand without a product."

When it comes to crappy brands, we generally choose not to buy them. So why do we keep buying this one?

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