Jessa Nootbaar

The Middle Myth: Why The Middle Class as We Know It Doesn't Exist

Strange Neighbors

I remember the first time I felt the need to rank my family’s privileges against those of others. I was about nine, and, in the spirit of the strange enthusiasm only a nine-year-old could possess, I had become fascinated with the sinking of the RMS Titanic. I checked out books from the library. I watched documentaries. I scrolled through online catalogs of the information known about the passengers aboard the ship. Then I noticed a particular detail next to each name, one which mostly read “First Class” when I looked through lists of those who had survived and mostly read “Second Class” and “Third Class” when I looked through lists of those who had perished. What was the difference between these three levels? Searching “Titanic Third Class,” I found pictures of people stuffed into tiny rooms filled with bunk beds, and, searching “Titanic First Class,” I found pictures of finely dressed people floating down a grand staircase. I thought about it all for a minute, then I turned to my dad to ask what really bothered me. “If we had been on the Titanic,” I said, “What class would we have been?”

My experience is not uncommon. At some point in one’s life, everyone desires to place themselves in society with respect to financial situation and social status. Most can settle on describing themselves as “middle class.” But what does that mean? One’s socioeconomic identity plays an especially important role in the culture of the Bay Area, the place I’ve been fortunate enough to call home for as long as I can remember. The Bay Area has unique circumstances that have created a very different social system than the one seen in the United States, or even in California, as a whole, which makes defining a “middle class” especially tricky. As one student said, “To me [being middle class] means the ability to comfortably afford a safe place to live, quality food, clothes, extracurricular activities, etc. The cost of those things vary in different parts of the country, so what may be a middle class income in Nebraska would not be enough to be a middle class income in the Bay Area.” According to the U.S. census, the national average annual income (from 2008-2012) was $53,000. The average in California was $61,400. And within the Bay Area itself, the numbers were all over the place. In Oakland, where I attend school, the average income was $51,683, but in Walnut Creek, where I live, it was $83,419, well over 150% of the national average.

The Bay Area has always been an important region to the country as a whole; California has been recognized as profitable since the nation’s earliest days. In 1848, under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the United States accepted the territory of California from Mexico with the promise the U.S. would cease attacks and the Mexican-American War would come to an end. California was especially important to the U.S. because it spans most of the Western coastline, which includes important port cities, such as San Diego and San Francisco. Because of its location, California offers oriental trading opportunities and military advantages. When gold was discovered in Sutter’s Mill one year later, international attention turned toward Northern California. Today, increasing numbers of technology pioneers flock to the Bay Area, and, because of their wealth, housing prices have risen, threatening traditionally “middle class” Bay Area natives in a phenomenon known as gentrification. Class divide tension culminated in 2011 with the Occupy protests, and Oakland emerged as a national leader in the movement.

Especially in the Bay Area, the spectrum of experience for those labelled “middle class” is wide, spanning such incredible differences that no one is quite sure what the term means. Neither the United States government nor the state of California has ever released an official definition. The term “middle class” is extremely subjective. In a survey I designed and sent out to the student body of my Oakland independent school, one student whose family had an annual net income of around $200,000 identified as middle class. But a student whose family made around $20,000 per year called their family “middle class” as well.

It makes sense why the public would gravitate towards the term. In our society, it’s easiest to be seen as “normal.” “Middle class” is just that. Because it’s hard to generate conversation about socioeconomic class when many shy away from the topic, most people make assumptions about the class and economic situations of those around them that would leave them right around the middle. In fact, 39% of the students I surveyed had no idea what their family’s income was, perhaps because the taboo of the topic. Many of these same students identified as “middle class” when asked. “I think middle class is where everyone feels like is the right place to be- they aren’t teased for being the rich kid or the poor one,” shared one student. People belonging to lower income families, especially in a prep school environment (where about 41% of surveyed students identified as “upper class”), don’t want to be pitied or discriminated against. Those on financial aid, who make up about a quarter of my school (according to the Admissions section of our website), rarely admit to it. And on the other end of the spectrum, people with higher incomes don’t want to come across as conceited or entitled. They don’t want to be seen as the 1%, the enemy during the Occupy movement. As one student articulated, “I think a lot of statistically high-income people like to name themselves ‘middle class’ or ‘upper middle class’ because they’re embarrassed to admit their actual financial situation. We live in a society where the rich are demonized, but the self-proclaimed ‘upper middle class’ have just enough perceived connection with the common man to avoid accountability.” Another student agreed: “I think it’s certainly more of a mindset idea: nobody wants to really call themselves lower class if they think they can get by, and nobody wants to call themselves upper class, both for reasons of pride [and] not wanting to seem like a ‘snobbish rich person.’” After this discussion of socioeconomic status, many still struggle to define what the “middle class” is. When asked, most people will give the vague, “Not rich, not poor,” “Of average wealth,” or (creatively), “In the middle.” Others will admit total lack of knowledge with a shrug or an “Idk.” Because the term has grown to serve as an identity for a group of Americans who actually represent vastly different socioeconomic situations, the “middle class,” as described by popular culture, politicians, and the American population, does not exist.

Where, or who, can we look to in order to define the “middle class”? Our president, Barack Obama, frequently speaks about the “middle class” and its importance, but he rarely details who exactly he’s referring to. In 2012, Obama said anyone who made less than $250,000 annually was considered “middle class.” However, this definition is problematic because it has no downward limit, meaning someone who makes $10,000 annually could be considered “middle class,” and, as discussed earlier, how far money can go varies dramatically throughout the country. Additionally, this definition only takes annual income into account. Other factors, such as homeownership, investments and other assets, level of education, and family background, are also important in determining socioeconomic status. This multi-faceted nature of class renders census data as undependable for determining socioeconomic statuses of families or areas. In an attempt to get a handle on the economic situations in different Bay Area cities, I looked at census data for average income, percentage of population below the poverty line, homeownership rates, and education levels. And while the statistics were helpful, I felt that the picture was incomplete. Interestingly, I also learned that if the middle 20% of the population (according to the census) actually represents the “middle class”, the middle class (as of 2012) has an annual household income of between $38,500 and $62,400, much lower than the figures most people give when asked to estimate a “middle class” income. In the Pew Research Center’s Social Demographic Trends Project, the center created a model of four distinct “middle classes,” a concept I found especially interesting because the groups were created on very nontraditional criteria; they took the typical factors (e.g. “financial circumstances”) into account, but they also determined groups by “attitudes” and “outlook.” The Research Center broke down the 53% of people they surveyed who identified as “middle class” into four groups: The Struggling Middle, The Anxious Middle, The Satisfied Middle, and The Top of the Class. They were able to detail a profile of the average member of each group, including gender, age, race, political inclinations, annual income, and attitude regarding their socioeconomic situation. Their four middle classes each contain a part of the population that shares many similarities, but the groups vary dramatically in relation to each other. The study proves how different “middle class” families really are, and therefore the fault in combining them into one group.

I posed the question, “What does being middle class mean to you?” to various Bay Area residents. “Stability, comfort, and connections,” one put simply. “[Being middle class puts you] way above the poverty line but you don’t own property…don’t have the mobility of the upper class,” said a thoughtful college student, sparking me to look at homeownership rates when I examined local census data. I heard, “[A middle class person] has everything they need but not everything they want,” frequently. Another response was especially thought-provoking, and spoke to the ambiguity of the term “middle class”: “Middle class isn’t just an income, it’s a lifestyle. It’s how you choose to live; it’s your values. It’s also relative: a middle-class income in the Bay Area is very different from a middle-class income in the Midwest or in another country. It depends [on] how much your housing and necessities cost (which varies widely), as well as how many people are in your family and how you spend your extra money (on a giant TV, or on charity?).” While most tend to look at income to indicate class, the way that money is spent is rarely considered. If a family has an income of $300,000, but must spend half of it on medical care for their child, are they more “upper class” than a family who makes $150,000 and has no great expenses?

The term “middle class” is also highly subjective to an individual’s own experiences. I looked at many of the responses to my survey individually to see if a student’s own socioeconomic situation influenced the range of incomes they considered “middle class.” Those from higher income neighborhoods, such as Piedmont, set the range for “middle class” incomes much higher than those from more average-income neighborhoods, even if they didn’t consider their own families “upper class” and/or their families had fairly average incomes. The wealth and attitude of those around them had led these respondents to believe that “average” was much higher than it actually is. The relativity of the label also struck me. Students who would be considered “middle class” in, for example, Walnut Creek, would qualify as “upper class” in, for example, West Oakland. There might be a mere fifteen miles between the two cities, but, nevertheless, the socioeconomic systems differ greatly. And if fifteen miles can make such a significant impact on how one defines class, what does this say about using the same terms on a national level?

Through my own explorations in various neighborhoods throughout the Bay Area, I soon realized the trivialness of trying to “judge a book by its cover,” or in this case, judge a family’s socioeconomic status by the location and appearance of their home. I noticed many nextdoor neighbors with homes at completely different levels of luxury. I saw new, well-kept homes sharing yard borderlines with older, dilapidated, more simple homes. “Why would these families be living in the same neighborhood?” I wondered. I soon realized one possible explanation: resource allocation. As a student said before, being “middle class” isn’t just about the money you have, but how you spend it. These nextdoor neighbors who appeared, on the surface, to come from such different circumstances, could in fact have the exact same economic situation, but one prioritized home appearance and one did not. How do these choices play into our definition of “middle class?” How much does external appearance matter?

So, you may be wondering, if we have a term that’s so ambiguous no one can truly put into words who it refers to, why is it so important to us? Why are we obsessed with “the middle class”? The middle class represents a common ground. As discussed earlier, it’s safe. It’s average. It’s relatable. It’s “normal.” A middle class represents its region, state, or country. And with the emphasis politicians put on the strength of the middle class, it’s easy to feel that without this undefinable group of people, our country would crumble to the ground. As one student articulated, “They’re the ones who run our economy and keep everything going. Without a middle class, everything would fall out of place.” If this mysterious “middle class” is doing well, then our country must be too. And we all like to have that sense of security.

The “middle class” is also at the root of the American Dream. It drives millions to immigrate to the United States every year. And while the U.S. can seem like a safe haven for families who flee from countries in turmoil, this “middle class” holds little promise when analyzed at an international level. While the average American’s income, which checked in at around $51,000 in 2012, seems fairly impressive, the figure is, in fact, deceiving. The average wealth per individual in the United States is actually $44,900, only the nineteenth highest when ranked against that of other countries, mostly due to low homeownership rates. The average income appears to be much higher than average personal wealth actually is because 42% of the world’s millionaires reside in the U.S., skewing average income upwards.

When discussing the “American middle class,” it’s unavoidable to also discuss the Great Recession, a time that altered the face of “middle class” so dramatically that its changes can still be seen today. The housing crisis caused personal wealth to drop by a shocking 40%. While the average income had been $56,080 in 1999, it had fallen to $51,017 by 2012. After being unemployed, it takes the average American just one year to burn through all of their assets. Millions of Americans became homeless. The wealth gap widened, leading to the fury of the 99% in the Occupy movement. And with the greater class divides came another fallacy of the branding of the “middle class.” If the country mostly consists of the very rich and the very poor, few are left to represent average incomes, which belong to the people who many define as the “middle class.” The “middle class” are supposed to be the majority of our population. But with the economy’s downfall, this “middle class” disappeared.

When we think of the term “middle class,” it’s easy for us to imagine a “middle class” individual. He’s about 45, let’s say. He has a wife and two children. He’s white. He works an office job, makes about $70,000 a year. His family shops at Safeway and Target. He has an iPhone (not the newest one but the model before that). He doesn’t own his four-bedroom home, but the mortgage will be paid off in six more years. He’s concerned about how the family will pay for his children’s college education. He drives a Prius. Can you picture him? You probably know someone just like him.

But the “middle class” isn’t exclusively him. The term has come to encompass people from radically different backgrounds with radically different incomes, assets, and spending habits: a group so diverse that it seems a stretch to call it a group at all. What do all these people have in common? Maybe only one thing: they decided to label themselves “middle class.”