The Platonic Ideal of Being Middle Class

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23 Responses

  1. Avatar Alan Scott says:

    My rule: A person is middle class if and only if they have their own desk, and use it for some non-negligible portion of their workday. The middle class was originally a word for wealthy people who weren’t landed gentry. Guild Merchants, Lawyers, and other forms of Bourgeois. PretendingCalling the guy who changes my oil middle class is an abandonment of the word’s original meaning, at the very least.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      I suspect that it has more to do with cultural capital than with where one necessarily ends up. I was raised by a single mother (widowed very young) and, seriously, we did not have a lot of money growing up.

      But you know what? I had one hell of a lot of cultural capital dumped on me. Tons.

      It’s that cultural capital that made me middle class. Even when I was making 8 or 9 bucks an hour fresh out of college, even when I was living on the wrong side of Union Avenue, I was middle class.Report

  2. Thanks for the shout-out and thanks for writing the post. Here are a few random observations/comments:

    1. Concerning this:

    he minimum fee for a union director in off-broadway is between 9,476 to 16,847 per a show (4). A mentor of professor of mine in grad school told me that a director who does 6 shows a year is “very lucky.”

    Taking the lowest salary and someone who is not “very lucky” and works only 4 shows a year, that comes to about 37k. Hmmmm. That’s actually more than I would have guessed. It’s also not a lot. But it’s also a salary I’d be happy with now. But it’s also about 2K less than what I make now. Of course, none of what I just said takes into account the relative amount of work a director and I have to do. Although I am an exempt/salaried employee, I usually work only about 40 hours per week, or maybe a couple hours more than that, and almost never more than 45. I imagine a director has to work a lot longer hours.

    2. About law and medical dramas. I think there are other dynamics along with the one you describe. The “law and order” dramas seem to be more a part of a movement to make heroes of law enforcement and villains of due process. The Boston Legal and Practice style shows as well as LA Law seem a bit more complicated. The viewer sees lawyers working hard but also doing ethically questionable things. Theirs is not all honest labor. Perry Mason-style shows (and movies ranging fro “The Verdict” to “Rainmaker” to “Amistad”) are different and probably approximate the “honest laborer” trope, or variations of it, along with their protagonists’ amazing ability to usually have only one case pending at a time.

    I do think medical dramas, or at least the ones I’ve seen, are a closer match to what you’re talking about. We see the “doctor-hero” who even though he (usually he) is better than and smarter than others, has to bear the indignity of working in an ER or having an apartment.

    3. This is very true:

    I think one issue with privilege and wealth is that you can always find someone who is higher than you on the socio-economic ladder and talk about why that person is the really wealthy one….My trust fund does not pay me an allowance or dividend and never did. In my mind, the trust fund kids were the ones whose trusts contained millions of dollars or more and allowed them to receive a monthly interest payment of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

    I try to remember things like that when I get on my high horse about trust-funders. I often fail at my efforts. One corollary to that point is that you cal always find someone who is lower than you on the socio-economic ladder. I have to remember that, too.

    4. I’ll add to this point: “We don’t mind people living well including very well but we seemingly prefer people who live well because of their labor over people who live well because they make very good investments.” That is true, and I also say that we, or at least I and I suspect a lot of other people, often overestimate the degree to which we have worked for what we have and underestimate the degree to which what we have is unearned. I guess I’m raising the specter of “privilege,” but I don’t intend it as an epithet or an attack. There’s just a lot that goes underacknowledged.

    5. I don’t think the term “middle class” as it gets bandied about today is going anywhere soon. If there are criteria for its definition, they’re probably moralistic (“work for a living”) and materialistic (someone who can support oneself, buy a house and car, and send their kids to college).. When I complain about it, I think what I would prefer is that people be more willing to recognize class differences. I think different kinds of work place different demands on people and create hierarchies which are perhaps recognized on some level, but the pervasiveness of which isn’t really appreciated. Someone in a low-waged service job is in a position of serving people who are often much better off and couldn’t give a d—- about them. My own qualms about small business owners (“THE BACKBONE OF OUR ECONOMY,” as some say) have some of their roots to my having to deal with them as a bank taller. But it’s more than just hurt feelings, it’s a sense of relative power and powerlessness that exists in US (and others) society. Maybe the US is more fluid in its class dynamics. But lumping it all as “middle class” just doesn’t do it for me.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      Not very lucky is more likely to be 0-2 shows a year and probably a lot of non-union shows which pay much less if anything.

      You are right about being able to find people lower down as well. I’ve had some humbling experiences with that.Report

  3. Avatar Damon says:

    @Saul DeGraw

    “I don’t want to encourage people to believe this but there is no way to talk about my trust without people thinking it is much bigger than it really is.”

    Then don’t talk about it. It’s no one’s business how much you make, how you paid for your education, etc. Now, Rich, Middle Class, Poor? Perception: Case in point: An actress/producer friend once called me “rich”. I assume that was because I was driving a 8 year old “luxury” car, had a relatively high income, and had travelled quite a bit, while she was living in a small apartment, worked two jobs (both around minmum wage) and drove a 10 year old Sentra.

    By that measure, maybe I was rich, but my “luxury” car and most of my travel was done when I was married, the wife made as much as I did, and we had no kids. My friend also didn’t know that 100% of my income paid my bills and I wasn’t saving any money (transition from marriage to singlehood can be a financial bitch). Ofc her dad bought her a car when she moved back from NYC and needed a car but had no money. Her dad also funded a lot of her start up capital for her production company that she started after moving back from NYC.

    So who’s “rich” in that story? Depends upon someone’s perception.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      I don’t bring up loans at all. People like to complain about their student loans and the general assumption is that I have student loans because almost everyone has student loans if they have a higher education.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        the correct response is “that sucks” or some variation thereof.

        besides, not having loans is great. i think it’s great. always have. that’s like feeling bad because you have toes. the toeless might be commiserating but unless you’re running around in sandals and standing up on tippies while calling them a bunch of short shoes, it’s kinda dumb to try and be self-hatey on the issue.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        Indeed. Ofc people always complain about something 🙂 My actress/producer friend disagree passionately on several topics, and generally we don’t talk about those subjects, but when one of us does, usually the other just keeps their mouth shut.

        “When it doubt, keep your trap shut” Words to live by. 🙂

        And as @dhex said, no debt is a good thing!Report

  4. Avatar zic says:

    I think our notions of ‘middle class’ stem from childhood; and relate to our status compared to other people in our community. If your family lives in similar circumstances to other families, that’s your definition of ‘middle class.’ Within your community, there are a few who are wealthy, some who are poor. But the norm of your family, and your neighbors probably shapes your notion of ‘middle class,’ and you carry that notion with you as an underlying definition as an adult.

    This results in people in the top 80% of income having the perception that they’re middle class — living amongst neighbors in the top 90%, they’re subjectively not wealthy. And it results in people who live on the edges of poverty feeling they’re middle class because they live in communities where people really do live in poverty.

    Inherited wealth can mean a lot of things; not just a trust fund. Sometimes it’s a business that nobody else in the family wants to or can afford to run — this happened with my father’s farm. What would have been wealth, had one of us opted to stay there and work, ended up being liquidated during the height of the energy crisis for rock-bottom prices when my father could no longer do the work, and nobody inherited wealth. When the asset is land or a business, heirs aren’t often interested in the responsibility, and the markets for businesses and land often fluctuate. My mom’s in the process of turning over her farm to me, none of my siblings are interested and I already own half of it. We don’t plan to live there, so I’ll have the responsibility going forward of finding a tenant and leasing the fields after the current occupant leaves (he’s very old). I’ll probably seek out someone who wants to farm and cannot afford to purchase land through a group like the Maine Organic Gardeners Association, and make sure I’m simply getting enough rent to pay the property taxes. This farm has a good wood lot, so every twenty years or so, I’ll be able to harvest about $30,000 worth of wood. Not a huge profit there. In rural areas, this is often what middle class looks like — people who are asset rich but cash poor, with assets that are relatively illiquid and are a constant drain on the cash flow.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      The same thing happens in SF. I’ve seen plenty of real estate being sold as being owned by the same family “since the 1920s” or earlier.Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Defining nearly every American as middle class is mainly a relic of the Cold War. Before the mid-20th century, Americans were better at acknowledging class differences in our society. A factory worker would not be described as middle class before World War II but could very well find himself in the middle class afterwards. Part of this was economics. In the United States, there has been a closer association between class and income than in Europe. The idea of genteel poverty made little sense in the American class system. The post-war economic system gave many formerly working class people, middle class incomes and lifestyles for the first time. That made them middle class as Americans understand it. The other reason was the conflict against Communism. If Communist nations defined themselves as working class nations than Americans would be the opposite, the bourgeoisie nation.Report

    • Avatar Barry says:

      “Defining nearly every American as middle class is mainly a relic of the Cold War. Before the mid-20th century, Americans were better at acknowledging class differences in our society. A factory worker would not be described as middle class before World War II but could very well find himself in the middle class afterwards. ”

      I imagine that domestic propaganda played a large role, but also the New Deal and unionization. Being a blue collar working in the 20’s was different from the 50’s, for more reasons than technology.Report

  6. Avatar Murali says:

    You know how some states receive more in federal dollars than they pay out while some states receive less, perhaps we can talk about how much some people receive they receive from the state vs how much they pay in taxes. Or maybe we can talk about how much they ought to receive from the state and how much they pay in taxes. It seems that you are upper class if you ought to be paying more in taxes than you ought to be getting back, lower if you ought to get back more via subsidies than you ought to be paying and middle class if you are roughly getting back as much as you pay.

    In principle we don’t want to call the rich the working poor just because an unjust state redistributes upwards, but given reasonably progressive taxation something seems wrong with calling people who pay more in taxes than they receive in subsidies middle class and something also seems wrong with calling people who cannot live without government support on net middle class.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      But it also feels like there’s a caste thing going on as well. If you’ve got someone classically trained, perhaps with a PhD (hey, Rufus!), who is working a job washing dishes and playing jazz music in his weekends, it doesn’t seem accurate to say that this person is lower (or middle (or upper)) class.

      He’s a Brahmin. He’s just a Brahmin on the wrong side of the tracks.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        Well, that’s because the guy with the PhD is seems to be just some n job applications away from a post doc, tutoring or lecturing position.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Should we base class on potential, then?

        I mean, that *KIND* of works… the person with a Doctorate has a buttload of cultural capital. Even on the wrong side of the tracks.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I would agree that there is a class/caste thing going on as well.

        I’ve often noted that in Palin-land elite is an actress with a degree from Smith who lives in Brooklyn and earns most of her money from serving/babysitting/tutoring. However, the guy who owns a string of laundromats and earns 500K but never went to college, he is not elite.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Which of those guys are you (like, as in *YOU*) more likely to meet at your best bud’s dinner party?

        (I mean, do the Palinistas have a point?)Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        They do and they don’t. Income and monetary wealth should count for something in the idea of what makes someone middle class or part of the elite or not. Now that Smith Actress probably has cultural capital but almost certainly a lot less than people think she has. The guy with the laundromats probably does want to send his daughter to Smith as well.

        As for meeting people at dinner parties, I am probably most likely to meet college-educated professionals at this point. Probably some cooks and chefs and people in artisnal food industries. When my best friend lived in San Francisco, her roommate was a dog groomer. Said roommate now owns a small farm outside of Ithaca, New York with her husband.
        Though probably not anyone who owns something like a a chain of laundromats. I will probably meet someone whose start up is a wash and fold service done via a smartphone app. Or guys with a van and a smartphone app.Report

  7. Avatar Wyrmnax says:

    More important than defining “how much earning does the middle class does” would be to define it based on tangibles that actually do make a difference on living conditions.

    My own personal definition, obviously subject to bias, of what kind of family should be considered middle class:

    (You) – is defined as the family

    1) You do not have unpayable debts.
    2) You could ‘make do’ if one of the two salary earners in the household looses his job. Would not be confortable, but you would not starve.
    3) You either own your house, has enough savings that you could potentially own a house, or its outstanding debt falls into 1.
    4) You have a mean of transportation. That might be a car in good working condition, might be living somewhere where you do not need one for your daily needs.
    5) You are able to save some money after all your expenses are paid. So, eventually travel, or change your vehicle, or restore your house, or whatever.
    6) Your family is able to be fed. Does not need to be too fancy, but you are able to afford to not live on junk food.
    7) Your family is able to be insured against ‘bad luck’ – Either through having savings or by being able to afford healthcare, housing and vehicle insurance.

    So yeah, in general terms, i think that ‘middle class’ should be popl that are able to live a minimally confortable life, with security. Nowadays we have a lot of people that are considered to be ‘middle class’but have absolutely no security in their lives – if anything goes wrong, they will be out of a place to live and not able to afford to eat.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      I would add 8) You have some discretionary spending money while fulfilling all of the above.Report

    • Avatar DavidTC says:

      Part of the problem is that we’re pretending this is ‘class’.

      Other people don’t know most of that list just by looking at people, so it doesn’t really work as a measure of ‘class’. I can’t look at the people in the restaurant and figure out if they have unpayable debts or not, and know if I’m supposed to eat in *this* restaurant, or the one down the street. (1)

      The best actual ‘class indicator’ in that list is not having a car where people normally have cars. If you *do* have a car, you might still be lower class, but if you *don’t* have one, you certainly aren’t middle class. (In places where people don’t have cars, what sort of transit you take is often still a class indicator…do you take taxis or buses/subway?)

      When most people say ‘middle class’, what they actually mean is ‘middle income’, or something like that. Or, really, it’s a measure of assets and income in a vague way, exactly like you said. I think what we’re really going for is ‘Enough to live on both in the long and short term, and able to usually recover from medium-scale disasters’.

      That’s not a ‘class’ position. That’s an economic position.

      America often finds itself very confused by the concept of ‘class’, because we basically keep tearing down all the rules and rebuilding them. And people feel free to randomly violate them…at least, white people do, but that’s a whole different topic.

      1) Hell, even the upper-middle class restaurants with dress codes now just enforce the actual *code*, and sometimes loan people something to wear. The dress code was *supposed* to be a proxy for class, but restaurants figured out that keeping people out was stupid. (The true upper class places, of course, still are filtered, and not just by dress.)Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

        As usual in this instance I point to Burt Likko’s “Three Classes”, which is the only really workable definition of American “class” that I’ve found.

        (in summary, he proposes that class distinctions in America involve one’s attitude towards wealth: Whether it’s something that society has and gives you some, whether it’s something you work in order to obtain, or whether it’s something that you just have without being given it or taking it from others.)Report