What Is Middle Class?

Politicians like to talk about “the middle class.” For example, Obama said that his reelection was “a mandate to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to try to get into the middle class.” But the ‘middle-class’ is poorly defined.  The term originated in 1745 when a new bourgeoise class was rising in England between the aristocratic landowning nobility and the impoverished peasants. The term probably applied to less than 15% of the population at the time.  Although the bourgeoisie class has expanded since then, “the middle class” is still usually defined by academics as considerably more elite than the median income.  Wikipedia attributes its modern usage to statistician T.H.C. Stevenson who said that the middle class was people with with significant human capital including professionals, managers, and senior civil servants and that is still how professionals and academics use the term.  It is themselves.  But much of the working class also thinks that it is middle-class too.  A 2012 Gallup poll found that 55% of Americans said that they are part of the middle or upper-middle class.  Only 2% of Americans said that they are above the middle class!  So when Americans talk about the ‘middle’ class, they are really talking about an elite class that begins somewhere at or above the median and extends up to the the very most elite classes.

No doubt there are deep-seated psychological motivations why people think of the middle class as being richer than the median, but one reason academics and journalists see themselves as at the middle is that we are used to hearing about average income rather than median income. Medianism could help raise a truer sense of class consciousness and help academics and journalists realize how privileged they are compared to the middle.  And if the ‘middle class’ realized that it is actually elite compared with the median, perhaps more members of the upper class would admit their level of privilege to themselves too.  It wouldn’t take much.  If only 4% of Americans realized that they were above the middle class, that would be a doubling of the upper class!

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