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
|Education||1970 Workers||1970 Incomes||2009 Workers||2009 Incomes
|Finished as % of none||165%||271%|
|Finished as % of some||132%||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.