What is the “Middle Class”? And Why are they so Whiny?

Who is the Middle Class?

My fiance and I just got back from having dinner with my Mother and Step Dad.  It was a good time, lots of food, wine, and whining.  Yes, whining.  Somehow or another the issue of my Mother’s taxes came up.  And of course, like all of us, she doesn’t like to pay them.  She understands they are necessary, and is willing to pay “her share” (whatever that means), but doesn’t think she should be so heavily “burdened”.  “Why don’t the rich take most of the slack?” she says.

My mother is a smart Woman, well educated, and has a very professional job where she is required to think.  She has a good heart, and means well.  But, on this singular issue, she’s exemplifying an attitude I take strong issue with.  She makes a good deal of money, complains constantly about what she doesn’t have, and how we need to fund more programs to make the country better, but she wants to lower her taxes.  In short, she is a member of the whiny and hypocritical “middle class”.  (I’m not trying to single her out, don’t worry, I love my Mom.  But, a good example is a good example.)

You may ask why I–a vocal Libertarian–would find fault with someone saying they want to pay less taxes.  Shouldn’t I encourage such banter?  No.  At least not from liberals.   If you want to fund schools, pay for universal healthcare, rescue children in Darfur, and keep NASA in space, then you have to pay taxes–a lot of taxes.   If you want low taxes, then give up on programs.

I think there are two reasons liberal middle class people are so prone to hypocracy.  The first is because they don’t realize how much money they actually make relative to the rest of the nation (and more importantly, to the rest of the world).  And second, they don’t realize how impossible it is to pay for everything we want by only taxing the “rich” heavily (because it’s impossible to get them to pay).  I’m not going to tackle the second problem, which is admittedly large.  But, I will hammer away at the first one.

Everybody is Middle Class

Every American thinks they are a member of the middle class–the middle of the middle class.  Over the years the term has expanded along with our bellies to include households that make as little as $25,000/year to single individuals making $100,000/year or more.  The term has lost all meaning.

I’m not going to take issue with people who make less than $25, 000 a year, or households making less than $50,000 who want reduced tax rates AND who still want all the liberal standards.  They are the people we’re supposed to be helping to get healthcare and good education for their children.

I do take issue with individuals pulling in over $60,000, especially when they don’t have children (or their children have left the house already) or households making $100,000, who want all the liberal goodies along with a lowered tax bill.

If you make that kind of money, you are upper middle class by today’s standards.  By the standards of the 1950’s, or of the current state of the rest of the world, you’re outright rich.

The facts

The true middle of the middle class is about $47,000/year for a household.  Not a person.  A household.  If you make $50,000 (just you) and you don’t have kids, then you pull in more than the average middle class family does with a combined income.  In other words, you’re rich.

If you and your spouse pull in a combined $100,000 then, even if you do have kids, you live on DOUBLE what the average American family does per year!  You’re rich.

The term “middle class” has become a weapon wielded by Politicians to lure in unsuspecting voters by making them feel like victims.  “The middle class is struggling!”, or “The middle class can’t pay it’s bills!”, are common catch phrases used by members of both parties to sell votes–and it works.  It works because everybody thinks that the politicians are talking about them!

The truth is less romantic.  Odds are, you are not a member of the middle class. The middle class is (by definition) only the people in the middle.  The rest of us are either below or above that.

I make a negative income.  I make decent money as a private weightlifting coach, but it’s no where near enough to cover my Tuition and living expenses.  So, I take out loans every year to continue my education while still feeding my face.  My net earnings per year are in the red.  Very red.  A deep blood red.  But, that’s ok.  I’m a student, it’s normal, and it’s worth it to me.

“Hi, my name is Nick, and I’m not Middle Class.”  There, that wasn’t so hard was it?

My Mother is well into the upper middle class (I call these people rich) group.  I’ve got a number of good friends in the lower middle class group (under $46,000/household with kids).  And a few friends who make right around $40,000, but are single and don’t have kids (I also call these people rich).

It’s all relative.

In America we look up at the super rich (Celebrities, Oil Exec’s) and say, “hey, I’m not making what they’re making, so I’m only middle class.”  What we should do is look at the average income for the average human being living on the planet, and compare our incomes to that.

Take a look at these averages collected by the World Bank:

Region Per Capita Income in US$

United States:   37,500

Ethiopia:  710

World: 8,200

East Asia & Pacific: 4,680

Europe & Central Asia 7,570

Latin America & Caribbean 7,080

Middle East & North Africa 5,700

South Asia 2,660

Sub-Saharan Africa 1,770

I’d say if you’re on a computer reading this, you’re doing pretty well.

References

Census Bureau Home Page. http://www.census.gov/

Thompson, William E., and Joseph V. Hickey. 2007. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology. 6th ed. Allyn & Bacon, July 12.

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9 responses to “What is the “Middle Class”? And Why are they so Whiny?

  1. Great post! This is complicated on so many levels. On one hand, one can be highly educated in the realm of middle class status yet the income might not reflect it. On the other hand, we see artist, musicians, and athletes that might not have attained a high level of education, but gross easily a 6 – 7 figure income. This is complicated because it makes it tough to define the middle class. Debt is another matter that redefines this too.

  2. Thanks. It is amazing how income can be so far removed from ones education or talent levels. Teachers are the obvious example on the low income end of the spectrum, but have high educations and huge workloads.

    And there are so many actors in Hollywood who are not “actors” proper, but pretty faces who make incomes that would cause Solomon to blush.

    So, yes, that is a major obstacle in defining what the “middle class” is. Funny how this group is easily among the toughest groups to classify, and yet they are by far the most powerful. Perhaps that is part of their power.

    I hope to do a few more posts along these lines and go into some deeper statistics in order get a better grasp as to exactly who these people are and what makes them so powerful.

  3. begin;

    What is wrong with a pretty face making ridiculous money… what is wrong with a soccer athlete making ridiculous money… what you are doing by showing income gaps between teachers and entertainers confuses people. Your premise is sexist and racist even though you would never realize it.

    Do yourself a favor and compare two similar vocations… like the difference in income between a public school teacher and a private school teacher? a male teacher versus a female teacher —

    while you are at it, compare the education that some douchebag kid in a virginian suburb gets to some unlucky bastard in a washington DC ghetto.

    there is nothing wrong with complaining about your taxes… if your mom had the capacity she would have sent her money to some island in the pacific where she can hide it from the tax laws…

    infact thats how you can tell who is rich and who is not. If you can find a way to cheat the law then you are rich believe it or not.

    the rest of the countries that you want to feel sorry about… the Ethiopias and other african nations are, — as George Carlin eloquently put… there to scare the shit out of people like you to get you to work harder to make some one else rich…

    end;
    good luck with your education homie… dont get out of school with too much debt

  4. The entire issue of “rich” vs. “middle class” also depends where you live (cost of living). If you can buy your groceries or pay your rent for $40 per week, it’s a lot different to live on $8,000 per year in one of those countries you mentioned vs. living in a location where a single month’s rent or mortgage is at or above half of that. I don’t think you can really put hard numbers to it without also specifying geographic region.

    • You’re certainly right. The stats I pulled from the world bank used the PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) method which tries to compensate for what you’re worried about. So, those numbers aren’t “hard” numbers, or absolute, they’re relative (usually to the US). So, for someone living in Ethiopia who makes only $710 a year, this doesn’t mean they actually make $710 a year, it means that if they were living here, in the US, it’s as if they were living on only $710 a year.

      I know, this is misleading, because many people in the poorest countries don’t use money at all for basic survival. they farm their food, they don’t pay rent, and so money is used instead for medical care and “things” generally. The statistics try to compensate for that fact by lowering the First World numbers and raising the numbers of those countries on the low end. But, while these numbers are hardly comprehensive or totally accurate, they can give us some idea of how peoples lives are related. I’m not sure there is a way to do this perfectly.

      My point in this post wasn’t to claim that poor people around the world live in any specific way, but rather to make the general observation that the American Middle Class has it good by any measure, and needs to stop bitching. They think the world revolves around them and their needs (or more accurately, “wants”). Clearly, there are plenty of people around the world who’s needs outweigh theirs, regardless of the exactness of any particular measure.

  5. Haha thanks for the insight man. I actually did a google search for “every american thinks they’re middle class” and came up with your page. I had a conversation with a co-worker at the grocery store where I work that got me thinking on this topic. We were talking politics and he said something about “middle class people like you and me” and my head kind of twisted up. “Dude, you and I are not middle class…what are you pulling, $2500 a month?” Now we were among the less than %5 of Americans with union jobs, so we felt like we were better off than a lot of folks we knew, but we were comparing ourselves to poor people in our social groups. That’s when I said the cursed word; the one that’ll get you branded a “socialist” for even saying it. “We’re working class, dude. Do you and your girlfriend pull in 70 grand a year together? Hell no you don’t. Working class, my friend.” I think it’s important to remember that we Americans have inherited a class shame from our puritan forefathers, who literally believed that god makes the good people rich. Ergo, the poor are poor because god has found them wanting. Most people would never put this into words like that, because it would show their vanity and lack of empathy in a really socially awkward way, but they believe it implicitly. The wealthy call themselves middle class out of a sort of false modesty and feigned populism, and the poor call themselves middle class out of a sort of hopeful moral pride. It’s so charged a term because its not just an economic delineation, its an ethical judgement. “Working class” is a neutral word, but the working class doesn’t use it because they, like most Americans, believe we live in a classless society, and at any rate they don’t want to be called “poor” because it implies pitifulness and lesser quality, neither of which they want to be. Thanks for the brain food. Peace.

  6. Croix, I’ve had that same conversation many times. And it IS funny, to be sure. We Americans find it hard to think of ourselves as anything but middle class, and your reasons I think are spot on.

    Most of the time it’s harmless and funny. But, it does lead us to vote in mysterious ways.

  7. ummm i think you should be talking about the CONSERVATIVE middle class. because they have a HUGE rep for bitching about taxes.

  8. I think besides income, being middle-class is also a mindset and lifestyle one lives by. For example, being used to going on a vacation once in a while, believing in getting higher education, and believing that having an average suburban home, would be things a person is accustomed to in the middle-class realm. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter if one family is making $75,000 and another family is making $150,000, they both have roughly the same mindset and values. They both shop at supermarkets, they both have trouble paying college tuition (in most cases), they almost all are in the workforce etc. Only small lifestyle comforts really separate these two families. It’s only when another family begins making over $400,000 or so when class and values really change and they’re considered upper middle/wealthy.

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