What Social Class Means

I wrote this piece during the summer and finally gave up trying to get it published in a progressive magazine. It's about the “working class,” a title that I suppose sounds old and clunky or sectarian to some editors–but not to me. I'm posting it here because a great article in Inside Higher Education this morning, “Welcome to the Occupation,” talks about the potential strengths of an Occupy Wall Street movement that defined itself by what it IS more specifically, i.e. people that work for a living. The important thing for me, in thinking about the “producerist” outlook mentioned in the article, is that accessible theories about social class have not kept up with the work we do. So we need a term to group our new jobs–from barista to call center worker, from office coordinator to bike messenger, from nonprofit drone to copyeditor, from daycare worker to home health aid, from small business owner with a staff of 2 doing masonry work to waitress They are jobs that are often assumed to me not “working class” or “blue collar” because they're feminized and low status or just not thought about. They are “white collar” or “pink collar” or “no collar,” but color coding isn't as helpful these days. These jobs are part of how work looks now, and they are all hard work, and they are manned and woman-ed by working people. Not the “middle class.” Whatever the middle class is…. I don't know. What are you? Really? Are you middle class—and what is “middle class,” anyway?

During the recent takeover of the Capitol building in Wisconsin in response to attacks on public-sector unions, I watched many YouTube videos and cheered and crossed my fingers and sent money. But I sat up straight and scowled in confusion as I heard more than one speaker during that event claim to be defending the “middle class.” Is that why thousands rushed to the rallies? The reality is that not everyone who is a teacher or a nurse is middle class. Two of these incomes—or one long-term career—might vault you into this category. But there isn’t room for everyone in the middle class. Right now, an unfortunate overlap of Left and Right rhetoric has left a huge practical hole, and we have few words to describe the lives that most of us are living—on the edge between middle class and poverty. I think maybe more of us might be working class than we know. I’m going to hazard a guess about your situation. If you’re a few paychecks away from being homeless, I think you might be working class. If you don’t own two houses and don’t have a bunch of cash stashed away, if your family makes under about $75,000 per year, you’re working class. Even if you happen to have scored a sweet job somewhere and you’re edging into the middle class, you’re not that safe. I don’t mean to be a downer, especially when things are depressing already. But wishing won’t change reality. You can lose your job and be right back at the bottom. Karl Marx studied woodcutters to formulate his theories of the working class—but today in the United States, cutting and hauling wood by hand isn’t exactly a growth industry. Max Weber, who knew nothing of adjunct rebellions, defined the “upper middle class” as those who have advanced degrees. I’m going to bet you know a Ph.D. student working at Starbucks. Even terms like “blue collar” and “white collar” are inadequate for describing call-center sweatshops and data entry carpal-tunnel mines. We’re in an information-driven globalized economy, and we need to be as bold as the corporate sector in understanding where we’re at—on our own terms. So where did the term “working class” go? In a recent article in Guernica, The American Dream as We Know It Is Dead, Arun Gupta explained the history of the right-wing push to stamp out working-class organizing and even the identity of being working class. Meanwhile, liberals and the heads of centrist labor unions shied away from the term “working class” and its Cold-War-tinged associations in hopes of being rescued by capitalism. Gupta presents a concise and compelling overview. What tripped me up was the statement that “it is almost impossible to find working-class culture or life beyond the market and corporate media.” I think this view collapses a huge economic, social, and cultural group with the ideal of highly organized and radical working-class communities whose members are conscious of their rank on the economic ladder. Organizers would prefer the latter, but our fantasies shouldn’t blind us to the reality that’s all around us. As a person trying desperately to grow my own politics and understand my own life in political terms in my twenties, I only got the hazy sense that if I didn’t work in a steel mill, I was inherently bourgeois and middle class. From the left, the liberal, and the right, the working class was as difficult to find as Santa Claus. Meanwhile, you might think that someone somewhere at the federal level has a chart that clearly defines the issue. But no—there’s just more erasure. President Obama gave Vice President Biden the job of launching The White House’s Middle Class Task Force. On its website, Biden appears on a short video to say that a “strong middle class equals a strong America.” So how do I join? It’s easy. The site explains that middle class is—by the U.S. Federal government—now defined by “aspiration”: “Middle class families share an aspiration to own a home and car, to send their kids to college, and to take occasional family vacations, all while maintaining health and retirement security. This understanding of the middle class also helps explain why so many people identify with this group so consistently through time.” This tiny site is tragedy writ small, a circular definition that attempts to shore up the failing American Dream with wishes. These goals should definitely not be reserved for those who want to be middle class. Most people who have received a degree and been hired in the last decade have worn through the illusion that an education and a job will make you middle class. The horrible reality betrayed by this site and most class rhetoric is that once you fall off the lower edge of the “middle class,” you’re suddenly defined as poor. Maybe that’s why people are so anxious to scramble into what they think is middle class. Polls put the middle-class income at anywhere between $45,000 and $100,000 (with variations for educational opportunities, assets, culture, region, and everything else). If you have lived on $45,000 a year as a single parent, as I have, you know that that amount is at the edge of a dangerous precipice. And if you don’t have health insurance but have to pay medical bills, you’re quite possible living in poverty despite your paycheck. That, to me, indicates that $45,000 can be, depending on your situation, a working class income. A 2004 study by the Drum Institute for Public Policy put the middle class as $40,000 and $95,000, even as people all over the income map also argued to be put in this category. But the Federal poverty guidelines for 2009 are $22,050 for a family of 4. As anybody who’s been poor knows, you can qualify for some help like the nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Aid for Families with Dependent Children if you are above that low, low level of poverty. If you have a household of 4, you can be classified as “needy” by the federal government and qualify for WIC if you make up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $40,793. Therefore, your income at $40,793 makes you needy. But by $40,000 you should be middle class. The ability to work and support yourself—to be working class and survive without aid from the government or without some seriously scary situations and the risk of bankruptcy and all those other looming catastrophes that come with being poor—has thus completely disappeared. Here’s an impurity test: Is your job highly automated and controlled by people seventeen steps above you in a massive bureaucracy over which you have no control? Do you have crappy health insurance in which you pay over $3,000 a year out-of-pocket for deductibles? Are you working a job where health insurance is offered in a scam that makes it completely unattainable or where it is not offered at all? Do you make under $75,000 a year? Do you care for and live with one or more non-wage-earners (children, elderly parents, etc.)? Are you self-employed but netting less than $40,000 per year? Or do you pay employees but take home less than $40,000 per year? Are you currently receiving calls from a collections agency? Do you have a high school education or less? Do you have a college education or greater but so many loans that the debt you owe is astronomical? Did one or more of your parents not go to college? Are you a single parent? You might be working class. That is not to say that making this income in the United States isn’t a huge privilege compared with the economic situation of workers in the rest of the world, but we have to start by understanding and defining the way we actually live here. And here, we pay for much of our social services out of pocket. Our income isn’t what it seems to be. A recent series of graphics in Mother Jones separates income categories into those who make over $27 million a year, those who make over $3 million, over $1 million, over $165,000… and then everyone else. The bottom 90% makes on average $31,000 a year. Maybe that is who should be called middle class. And if we did that, maybe things in our society would suddenly get a lot clearer. Consumer goods are not a measure of class status, though the companies who sell cars and air freshener have an obvious interest in making us believe that their products will create the comfortable and safe, imaginary lives of people in their commercials. Companies tap into the bottomless longing for security and tie their bottom line to our experience of insecurity. And from a consumer angle, it’s easy to fake middle class by hitting good sales, being good at garage sales and thrift store visits, and racking up credit card debt. But this doesn’t mean everyone is brainwashed or middle class because they look like the television commercial version of middle class. We need to get beyond trashing people for buying into this culture in large and small ways. We’re soaking in consumerism, and building resistance to that takes time. Just because someone aspires to take a cruise—or can take one—does not make them middle class. We need to be less harsh on the people around us who are trying to find some joy in their lives. Working people feel oppressed—they have to pay taxes, they get sub-par social services, and their lives are stressful and uncertain because the government and corporate American are always messing with their schools and ability to get loans and healthcare; it’s one attack after another, and that can make a person cranky. But because working people often don’t have any vocabulary to describe their experience, so it turns to envy (must be those damn unionized workers keeping me down) or racism (which obviously never turns out well.) I’m not condoning all the confusion in the attacks on public sector unions; I’m just advocating that we understand how complex working-class life can be, especially when there’s no clear alternative and no term for describing reality. Just because someone buys the ruling class rhetoric doesn’t mean that they have become middle class. Not all Tea Partiers are middle class. Not all academics and lefties are middle class. And then we need to imagine a world where someone can buy a bookshelf at IKEA and be working class and call themselves by their true name.


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