This week’s Rolling Stone has an article on the “sharp, sudden decline of America’s middle class.” The only problem is that few if any of the people discussed in the article are in the middle class; instead, they are working class.
As the Antiplanner has noted elsewhere, Americans often pretend to ignore the line between working class and middle class, yet it is very real and difficult to cross. The middle class includes people with college educations and jobs that involve thinking and creating, usually described as “white-collar” jobs. The working class includes people with less education and jobs that require physical labor or repetitive work, usually described as “blue-collar” jobs.
Many people in the middle class have very few working-class friends, so they can’t relate to working-class lives and lifestyles. We imagine that most people are middle class, and only a few unfortunates are in the working class. In fact, less than 30 percent of working-age Americans have college degrees, which is a pretty good proxy for the size of the middle class.
While there are certainly exceptions, the middle class is not suffering much from the current recession. Nor does the middle class have to worry much about traffic congestion (their jobs allow flex time or even working at home) or the increased housing prices caused by land-use regulation (they earn enough money to deduct mortgage interest from their taxes). Even if a middle-class employee loses his or her job, their skills are flexible enough to adapt to another job.
These problems are serious barriers for the working class. They have less choice about when and where they work; their incomes are less insulated from housing bubbles; and if they lose their jobs, they are less likely to have the skills to get a job in a different field.
Fifty years ago, working-class incomes averaged about 75 percent of middle-class incomes, and in some urban areas (such as Detroit), average working-class incomes were actually higher than average middle-class incomes (thanks to overtime). Working-class families lived next door to middle-class families, drove in similar cars, wore similar clothes, and their children went to the similar schools.
American income inequality bottomed out in the 1960s and has increased ever since. Today, working-class jobs pay less than 65 percent of middle-class jobs. This means it is harder for the children of working-class parents to climb into the working-class, and the real scandal with high college tuitions is not the costs they impose on middle-class students but the way they prevent working-class children from even entering college.
While the story Rolling Stone tells of homeless people is heartrending, it is not a story of America’s declining middle class oppressed by the 1 percent. It is a story of working-class people oppressed by the middle class.