What Is Middle Class?

A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Proctor & Gamble was no longer marketing to the middle class but instead has a two-tier marketing strategy (if you don’t have a subscription, you can get the gist of the article here). This has led to all kinds of discussion by the chattering class about America’s disappearing middle class.

The implication of the WSJ article is that Proctor & Gamble is marketing to an upper class and a lower class. The Antiplanner disagrees. What we are seeing instead is a re-bifurcation of what for a time was commonly called the middle class into what sociologists usually define as the middle and working classes.

From 1840, when America’s cities began rapidly growing, to 1920, those cities featured two large and very different classes of people. The middle class tended to be better educated and middle-class employees earned salaries. The working class tended to be less educated, their work was more physical and repetitive, and they tended to earn wages. Largely because of educational differences, the two classes had very different tastes and cultures.

After World War II, the two classes seemed to merge. Thanks to unions, limits on immigration, and assembly-line manufacturing methods, working-class wages grew to equal middle-class salaries. By 1970, in fact, in some American cities, working-class average annual earnings were greater than for the middle class, at least according to Edward Glaeser. This allowed working-class families to buy the same cars and clothes as middle-class families and to live in the same neighborhoods and go on the same vacations.

If classes are defined solely on the basis of income, then working-class families were middle class. But if classes mean something more, then the twain never really met. Due to educational differences, working-class tastes were always far different from those of the middle class. The working class hung Thomas Kinkade reproductions on their walls; middle-class tastes in art were more abstract. The working class drove pickup trucks and SUVs; the middle class drove Volvos and other crossover vehicles. Working-class recreation revolved around machines such as motorbikes and motorboats; middle-class recreation revolved around self-powered sports such as cycling, hiking, and cross-country skiing. These may be stereotypes, but various studies have found significant differences, including that the middle class is more likely to be politically active while the working class is more likely to be obese.

Income by Educational Attainment

Education1970 Workers1970 Incomes2009 Workers2009 Incomes
No college27,853,6667,84266,196,00618,163
Some college4,555,2579,74546,749,93228,852
Finished college6,045,98412,90946,868,50249,194
Finished as % of none165%271%
Finished as % of some132%171%

Numbers of workers age 25-64 and weighted averages of their median incomes by educational attainment in 1970 and 2009.

What is happening to American class structure is not so much that the 1 percent that forms the upper class is controlling most of the nation’s assets but that the Americans who never went beyond high school are once again earning far less money than those who achieved at least a bachelor’s degree in college. The Census Bureau says that, in 2006-2008, American workers with a bachelor’s degree or better earned more than 170 percent more than people who never went to college. By comparison, in 1970 college graduates earned only 65 percent more than people who never went to college (see table 1 of chapter 5 of this 151-MB document).

The WSJ‘s examples of P&G’s two-tiered marketing strategy include Luvs (low-end) vs. Pampers (high-end) disposable diapers and Gain (low-end) vs. Tide (high-end) laundry detergent. Pampers and Tide are not aimed at the 1 percent of Americans in the upper class. They are aimed at the educated, middle-class Americans who want and can afford something a little better than ordinary for themselves and their families.

Scholars and analysts have offered a variety of reasons for why the former middle class has re-split into a middle class and working class: the export of manufacturing jobs; the increase in illegal immigration; the birth of the “knowledge economy.” But the fact of this split is less disturbing than the apparent lack of social mobility of many of those who are stuck in the working class.

Foreign families who immigrate to America often start out in the working class, but propel their children into college and encourage them to aspire to middle-class jobs, incomes, and tastes. Yet children in native-born working-class families are less able to break into the middle class. This isn’t just a problem of the black “underclass,” though that is a part of it, but it seems to be a problem across all races and regions. When working-class jobs paid as well as middle-class jobs, it wasn’t important, but now that they do not, it is critical to our view of America as the land of opportunity.

Fixing this problem means reforming our K-12 education system so that it offers extra assistance to children of working-class families; reforming our higher-education system so that it is more affordable to everyone; and reshaping government policy towards jobs and incomes. Our goal should not be to try to restore working-class incomes to be the same as those of the middle class but to make the American dream of true social and income mobility a reality for those who want and are able to achieve it.

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27 thoughts on “What Is Middle Class?

  1. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Fixing this problem means reforming our K-12 education system so that it offers extra assistance to children of working-class families; reforming our higher-education system so that it is more affordable to everyone; and reshaping government policy towards jobs and incomes.

    I’ve no problem with extra educational resources directed at children of working-class (and even lower-class income brackets). But I vigorously disapprove of so-called “bilingual” education for children where English is a second language (and as a child, we spoke no English in my home while I was growing up). The emphasis should be on such children developing good spoken and written English, not some other language.

    Our goal should not be to try to restore working-class incomes to be the same as those of the middle class but to make the American dream of true social and income mobility a reality for those who want and are able to achieve it.

    This is correct. Many people do not appreciate how important and how valuable a “free” K-12 education is.

  2. Sandy Teal

    The Antiplanner has become a large scale social planner today.

    Since we have a long list of kids that should get extra resources in public schools, why don’t we also compile a list of kids that should get reduced education resources.

  3. transitboy

    This is very liberal for the antiplanner. Does this mean that Rick Perry’s decision to decimate K – 12 spending in Texas rather than have a modest tax hike was bad for the state? I believe so. How about the large reduction in state funding for public schools that has been going on?

    While the Tea Partiers who read this site probably don’t think it’s a problem that the poor and middle class are having increased difficulty in getting an education, I know business people are concerned – how will they make money if they cannot find anyone to hire because the labor pool is so unskilled and uneducated?

  4. tthomas48

    Dual-language vs. the standard ESL is actually fascinating and worth looking into. It very much looks like it will be the fix that you are looking for. The most interesting thing about it is that not only do the originally Spanish speaking children in dual-language programs outperform their peers by the time they get to high-school, but that the English-speaking children do as well. My daughter is doing it currently and it’s fascinating how much of the program really teaches thinking and real world communication skills.
    There are a lot of reasons dual-language works, but one big one is that it’s essentially an honors program. The kids do a lot more work than a standard class. The kids are split into low, medium, and high performers and are paired with another child who is within one step of them (and the pairing changes every few months). They work with that partner. If the partners can’t figure it out they go talk to the other pair at their table. If the table comes to a consensus they can’t figure the work out they go talk to another table. They also are required to write in separate colors so that one child cannot do all the work for another.
    It’s fascinating and I think the future of education. You should really check it out.

  5. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Gain (low-end) vs. Tide (high-end) laundry detergent

    I was amused when you mentioned Tide detergent above, for that was my preferred brand back in my single days, and it was also my wife’s preferred brand before I met her. So there was never any disagreement about Tide, though neither of us ever worried about the class implications of using Tide, nor are we NASCAR fans (though I understand that there’s no longer a Tide car in NASCAR races, though there was a Tide truck racing in 2010).

    Our local Sam’s Club has a 170 ounce (just over 5 liter) jug of coldwater Tide for just under $20.

  6. Dan

    Our goal should not be to try to restore working-class incomes to be the same as those of the middle class but to make the American dream of true social and income mobility a reality for those who want and are able to achieve it.

    Yup, I’m with you.

    However, with continuing wage depression, increasing health care costs, and capital chasing cheap labor offshore, it will be harder and harder to do this in the future. Capital is mobile. It can chase the lowest wage whereever it wants. And stateside, workers will have to be ever more mobile, meaning lower homeownership rates.

    DS

  7. bennett

    “Fixing this problem means reforming our K-12 education system so that it offers extra assistance to children of working-class families; reforming our higher-education system so that it is more affordable to everyone; and reshaping government policy towards jobs and incomes. Our goal should not be to try to restore working-class incomes to be the same as those of the middle class but to make the American dream of true social and income mobility a reality for those who want and are able to achieve it.”

    Here’s an interesting take on how to do this…

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-september-22-2011/jennifer-granholm

  8. AIG

    Following WW2 the “working class” gains are likely mostly due to technology and productivity advances, not “unions”. “Unions” can’t make output per person, which then drives wages, go up. If anything, they make output per person go down. In my opinion, what we witnessed post-WW2 was a similar industrial revolution to the first one. The first revolution brought the farmers to the cities, and improved their lot. The second, brought automation which increased productivity and drove wages and lifestyle up. Now we are faced with a third industrial revolution, one which focuses on knowledge. And this is what is causing the growing divergence between the educated and less educated. And we should welcome this since we attract the best minds in the world to the US.
    As far as education, I think the US education system is by far the most open and accessible system in the world, particularly for the value it delivers (at uni level). Arguing for making this “cheaper”, may be missing the point. Education today provides more value than ever before, and so it isn’t unreasonable for it to be more expensive than before (in fact, I think higher edu. is grossly under-priced for the value-creating degrees; ie eng., sciences, etc).

  9. AIG

    The lack of economic mobility between the so-called “working class” and “middle class” is contradicted precisely by the immigration example that you gave. Immigrant families manage to “move up” within a generation or two. Obviously, they are utilizing the same education system as US “working class” families are, but apparently (or statistically) failing to utilize as successfully. Can we then really blame the education system? Or is it, at some level, a cultural issue? Or are we inferring something from these statistics that isn’t there? For example, we are inferring that the “working class” today is mostly made up of “Americans”, as it was post-WW2. But perhaps a larger proportion of this today is composed of first-generation immigrants, than it was in the 60s or 70s or 80s? (I’d venture to say, very likely so). As multi-generation Americans move “up” on the economic scale, they are replaced by waves of new first-generation Americans. If this explains part of it, I can’t say its a bad thing or an undesirable thing. Either way, I don’t see any real justification for “something” to be done.

  10. msetty

    I’m happy to see that some thoughtful “lurkers” decided to become posters here, e.g., AIG, tthomas48, and transitboy. Hopefully this is a trend to offset some of the more pigheaded established denizens of this blog.

    AIG:
    As far as education, I think the US education system is by far the most open and accessible system in the world, particularly for the value it delivers (at uni level). Arguing for making this “cheaper”, may be missing the point. Education today provides more value than ever before, and so it isn’t unreasonable for it to be more expensive than before (in fact, I think higher edu. is grossly under-priced for the value-creating degrees; ie eng., sciences, etc).

    I must strongly agree with this. However, it seems unlikely that those educated alone could directly cover the value of such education alone. Truly talented doctors, engineers, researchers and other professionals are worth much more to employers than their likely wages and benefits, even if in the top tiers of $100,000+/annually.

    Certainly such professionals are much more valuable to their employers and society as a whole than grossly overpaid chief executives or hedge fund managers––who have the built in conflict of interest of selecting their own board of directors, who in turn award some of the truly outlandish, outrageous salaries many of these social parasites receive.

    This outcome is yet another illustration of the points made by Elizabeth Warren recently in a viral YouTube video, that Rush Limbaugh, right wing bloggers and others are having so much difficulty getting their heads around. For those haven’t seen the Warren video, here is the link, along with better than average mainstream media analysis: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/onpolitics/post/2011/09/elizabeth-warren-class-warfare-video-/1.

  11. Sandy Teal

    The kids we need to cut education resources to are the kids that show up most every day, do their homework, and get average grades. They mostly have two parents, who often go to PTA meetings, show up at parent-teacher conferences, and help their kids with homework.

    These kids don’t have social-economic factors against them, so let’s not waste of public social planning funds on them. Why spend public money raising a kid when parents are perfectly willing to do it for free?

    Let’s cut funding for these kids and spend more on other kids!

    Sorry for the sarcasm, but I cannot stand the illogical education posturing like The Antiplanner took in today’s post. You can’t spend more on some kids without taking resources away from other kids.

  12. Dan

    You can’t spend more on some kids without taking resources away from other kids.

    That’s exactly what they’re trying to do in the rich county just to the south of here.

    DS

  13. C. P. Zilliacus

    Sandy Teal wrote:

    Sorry for the sarcasm, but I cannot stand the illogical education posturing like The Antiplanner took in today’s post. You can’t spend more on some kids without taking resources away from other kids.

    Education of children should be a high taxpayer priority. And in spite of the bashing that our (mostly public) K-12 education system gets from some commentators, it works pretty well (though not where unions have too much power, or where the needs of the employees of the school system take priority over the educational needs of the children).

    An example of unions having too much power can apparently be found in Chicago, Illinois, according to this recent Washington Post editorial.

    Now some readers of this blog may rightly ask what can (should?) be cut to pay for more and better education? My answer is easy – most “recreational” drugs should be made legal [that's right, legal] (and taxable) and we should release from prison the majority of persons who are there for non-violent drug offenses. That would increase the amount of money flowing into public coffers, and if we can close prisons, we save the taxpayers a pretty large chunk of change.

  14. bennett

    C. P. Zilliacus says: “Education of children should be a high taxpayer priority. And in spite of the bashing that our (mostly public) K-12 education system gets from some commentators, it works pretty well.”

    I’m often astounded at the licking that public school teachers take from the (mostly right-wing) media and their listeners. One of my closest friends is a 4th grade teacher in an “under-preforming” school in Tacoma, WA. This spring we were able to visit her and spend a couple of hours at her school.

    Any detractors or politicians looking to decrease funding for public education should have to spend 2+ hours in an “under-preforming” 4th grade class. Do that and then try and tell me that these unionized teachers are over appreciated or over compensated. What I observed was dedicated professionals working under impossible circumstances and achieving the impossible. I suppose that the impossible just isn’t enough for some.

    And Sandy, there is a reason why many states pool their educational resources to insure equitable access to education. To reply to your comment with another sarcastic response… Let’s just let the wealthy neighborhoods keep all the funding generated by property taxes in their area. That’s the only fair way to do it. So what if the poor schools are suffering, it’s their own fault. If the working class wants a better education for their children that should just make more money and move to a nicer neighborhood. Duh! So what if a state has a public education system where 1/2 the kids get a great education and 1/2 get a poor education. What bad could come of that?

  15. AIG

    Where is the evidence that “spending” is a contributing factor in education at the pre-university level? It doesn’t look like that to me. I’m an immigrant to this country, and went to school in E. Europe where the teachers were paid very low wages, schools had no heating in the winter, often there were no windows either, and books were a rarity (I’m not exaggerating. This was, after all, the early 90s). Any of those kids would outperform US kids (and they did, when a lot of those kids emigrated to the US).

    And here we are, talking about the poor Union teachers of Tacoma Wa, who were on a strike for how many weeks just this month? Give me break. The US has an immensely accessible education system at all levels. The US spends immense sums on education at pre-university levels. And none of this spending has made a difference, or will make a difference. To blame poor performance of a certain segment of society on lack of spending, is more than likely missing the point, and asking for “more of the same”. Whether its the management structure of schools, the funding incentives, or cultural issues…I don’t know.

    But are we not skirting the personal responsibility of parents? If these ‘working class” parents grew up thinking that an education was not necessary for their children’s future, then they brought up a generation which is going to exhibit those behaviors. There’s nothing we can do about it. There’s nothing we “should” do about it. Educational preferences are a “learned behavior” over generations, and they have to be learned the hard way.

    If you try to artificially interfere, you end up with lots of kids going to college for useless non-value creating degrees which have to be paid by taxpayers. That’s what we’re doing right now (and creating armies of under-qualified “education majors” which will become the next Union teachers of Tacoma Wa or elsewhere).

    PS: Msetty, I wholeheartedly disagree that CEO’s or executives or hedge fund managers, or whatever else you brought up, are less valuable to “society” than engineers. Obviously their employers disagree with you. I’m an engineer myself, but I could do nothing if it weren’t for that financial manager who arranged the finances and credit needed for my company to exist.

  16. bennett

    AIG says: “But are we not skirting the personal responsibility of parents?”

    Not really. That’s the main “impossible circumstance” that many teachers have to deal with. Also, I personally don’t feel that the “screw the kids that have irresponsible parents, they’ll get what’s coming to them,” sentiment is a good one. But hey, that’s just me.

  17. Sandy Teal

    CPZ – I don’t understand why you aren’t blaming the Teacher Unions. The first thing the Unions demand in a teacher contract is that good teachers cannot be given more pay than any teacher that meets the base minimums, and that seniority dominates any decision rather than quality.

    Great teachers leave the public schools every year because terrible teachers get paid more just because they have more seniority. The bad teachers stick around and just do the minimum to build up seniority. That is the public school system when a union is involved. How many teachers in your district have been fired? When they lay off teachers, do they lay off the terrible teachers or do they just lay off all the recent hires?

  18. msetty

    AIG, you missed my point completely. CEOs who can appoint their Boards of Directors in effect are their own employers, so they have a huge built in conflict of interest. As for hedge fund managers making a billion or more dollars per year, you don’t need those social parasites to make “financial deals” so companies and new ventures can be financed. Plenty of $100k-$250k bank officials are perfectly capable of judging many ventures.

    As for startups and similar business ventures, I am working with some startups and have become familiar with how they get financed by VC and other sources. That process has NOTHING to do with the financial and social parasites sucking away on the real U.S. economy; in fact it has almost nothing to do with the Great Casino, er, Wall Street.

  19. AIG

    “Also, I personally don’t feel that the “screw the kids that have irresponsible parents, they’ll get what’s coming to them,” sentiment is a good one. But hey, that’s just me.”

    Bennett, while I may share your sentiment and desire to “help” and “do something”, the question really is whether or not we can do anything. Clearly, throwing money at pre-university education has not given any positive results. Clearly, education at all levels is extremely accessible, and there is no person in the US who can realistically say that they cannot afford a college education. Everyone can. Thats how we ended up with armies of kids graduating with useless “education” degrees, complaining about how little money we throw at “education”, so that they can get jobs for themselves.

    So what is the plan here for getting kids and parents who don’t want to learn, to learn? Make everyone watch “The Principle”? What practices have worked in the past, or elsewhere, to get people to want to get more knowledge? The only thing I know that has worked, is to make it economically attractive to get said knowledge. The markets are already doing a good job at that. The problem, after all, isn’t as bad as its being made out to be here. The US outclasses any country in the world by a wide margin in terms of the quality and value generated by its higher education institutions. So…what exactly is the problem again?

    PS: Msetty, since you’ve already determined that all these people and jobs are “parasitic”, there’s probably nothing I can say to change that view. One thing is clear, however. And that is that the people who pay these “parasites” such exuberant amount of money, clearly don’t share your feelings as to how to manage their money.

  20. bennett

    AIG says: “The US outclasses any country in the world by a wide margin in terms of the quality and value generated by its higher education institutions. So…what exactly is the problem again?”

    I suppose that’s a good question, and one I would ask of the conservative govs’ and representatives that want to suck resources away from public schools. The teachers in Tacoma went on strike to just keep the status quo and not regress. Maybe some feel our educational system is just too good and we need to knock it down a peg.

  21. AIG

    It all depends on what “suck resources away” and “status quo” means to the teacher’s Unions, or to you. If “status quo” means continued exponential growth in expenditures and hiring of armies of recent education Masters in what are essentially make-work programs for the non-value adding subsidized fresh diploma holders, then I wouldn’t consider slowing this down as “sucking resources away”. (can you think of a more bizarre scheme than heavily subsidizing the acquisition of diplomas to get highly subsidized and protected teaching jobs, where you can then lobby for more money to fund this scheme, and also get to accuse anyone who demands results from you as being against “the children”! No wonder so many kids these days want to be “teachers”. They’ve learned the life lesson that it pays to be a gov. employee!)

    But thats my opinion, based on how I define those terms. Either way, I’d like to hear your opinion on what steps should be taken in order to…correct…whatever problem we’ve decided here exists (which I’m not sure we have). My proposal was to make everyone watch Jim Belushi’s “The Principal”. Other than that, I don’t know how else to make kids and parents who don’t want to learn, learn; other than the pains of life’s lessons.

  22. bennett

    “Suck resources away” does not refer to the somewhat calculated planning initiative you mention. It’s just an across the board cut. In Tacoma, it was increase your class size (work load) by 20% and take less money for it. If there was a calculated plan to increase productivity by teachers you probably wouldn’t have seen a strike but a more civil negotiation. The proposal that elicited a strike would have undoubtedly made class room less productive.

    “Status quo” in this case would be keep the class size relatively the same, no pay raises for anybody, pay cuts for some, and the same seniority rules still play. Not exactly a productive non-change.

    Along with watching “The Principal” I think that decreasing school and class sizes will go a long way to alleviating some problems. You’re right there is not much that we can do about parents who don’t care, except continue to give their children as many educational opportunities to succeed as possible. But alas, most in this cohort will probably slip through the cracks. I do, however thank that there are a variety of socioeconomic factors that challenge a parents ability to be involved in their children’s education, as well as the ability for the child to be educated. These factors extend way beyond the parents not caring, but the challenges of working class parents to engage in their children’s education are greater than wealthier families. This is where smaller class sizes can make a difference, by allowing for more focused instruction and more meaningful interaction with parents when interaction is able to occur. To accomplish this there are obvious reforms to the system that need to be made (e.g. teacher seniority), serious calculated planning, and a reworking of performance measures for both students and teachers. But alas, this will all cost more money not less. I don’t want to throw money at anything, nor do I want to rip it away, but I’m not going to say there is nothing we can do.

  23. AIG

    Bennett, all your prescriptions sound good in theory, but is there any evidence of how they actually affect performance? I’d bet my left arm, that none of what you mention will have the slightest effect. I’d bet my right arm, that 95% of such prescriptions thought of by ‘well meaning” people and teachers, are simply excuses that adults in the US (of the baby boomer generation and their children, ie the “working class”) come up with to explain their failures as parents and students and as educators. I personally don’t care much for such excuses. I went to a classroom with 60 students in it; 3 kids sitting in desks designed for 2. We had 1 book to share between the 3 of us.

    And here we are in the most bloated education system in the world, bursting at the sides with the level of expenditure, the amount of teachers, the amount of overhead, the amount of administrators, and all we can think to complain about it how “hard” we have it. If the teachers in Tacoma have been reducing class sizes endlessly and hiring new teachers, putting a stop to that isn’t “sucking resources away”. Its stopping what clearly doesn’t work.

    And then we try to look for “socio-economic” factors etc etc which penalize the ‘working class”. But what is that based on? What evidence? What is preventing the parents from being more involved?

    And maybe its me, maybe its the fact that in other countries where I grew up we didn’t have the cultural baggage of rapid economic growth post 1945 that created this “split” and created the “baby boomer” gen and the “hippies” and the “80s” etc. But it seems to me that being thrown into middle class past WW2 at such speed, with no education, has left some cultural marks on the successive gen. who were brought up to always say “it ain’t my fault! Its society’s!”. Where I come from, it’s your own da*n fault. All I’m sayin’ is…stop trying to take more of my money to throw at your spoiled brats, if you’re not willing to put in the work yourself.

  24. AIG

    PS: I don’t buy the “racism” thing either. I’ve known plenty of recent African immigrants who went to college with me, and most of them ended up doing real well. Where was the “racism” preventing them from doing anything? Hey, if you want to see yourself as the victim all your life, you’re going to be the victim.

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