Critics of Mitt Romney laughed when he said that “middle-class income” was “between $200,000 and $250,000″ when what he actually said was that it was “between $200,000 and $250,000 or less” meaning that the $200,000 to $250,000 was the upper limit. As the Huffington Post points out, Democrats including Obama and Pelosi have also used that definition. Of course, both Romney and Obama have incomes well above that amount.
But all of these views are wrong, because classes such as middle class are not defined by income. As Michael Zweig writes in The Working Class Majority, “just looking at a personâ€™s income doesnâ€™t tell us anything about how the person got the income, what role he or she plays in society, how he or she is connected to the power grid of class relations.”
What Romney, Obama, and the various pundits are referring to is middle income, not middle class. As only 16 percent of U.S. households earn more than $100,000 a year, and only 4 percent more than $200,000, the upper limit for middle income is probably much lower than $200,000. But I suspect Romney stated it the way he did to preserve the claim that he has no desire to raise taxes on anyone below that limit.
Classes are different from income levels. As Wikipedia notes, various definitions of “middle class” have included completing a tertiary education; having professional qualifications; having “bourgeois values,” and other things. Zweig bases his definitions on relative power; I base mine on education and occupation.
Zweig calls the upper class the “capitalist class,” and within that class, he claims there is a “ruling class” of less than 50,000 people who own most of the interest in the corporations that produce most of America’s products. Below the capitalist class is the middle class, which Zweig defines as professionals, managers, and small business owners. Below that is the working class, which Zweig more-or-less defines as people who have to do what they are told.
My own definitions are a little different and are based more on levels of education and whether work is based on thinking or physical labor. We both agree that classes represent different cultural values and that the middle class is actually a minority, amounting to less than 30 percent of population, while the working class is 55 to 60 percent.
Most pundits ignore the working class under the notion that most people think of themselves as middle class now. But as Zweig notes, when you ask people “Are you upper, middle, or lower class?” most people answer “middle”; but when you ask, “Are you upper, middle, working, or lower class?” most answer “working.”
I think the real problem is that, as Zweig complains, the working class feels that it doesn’t have any power, so it doesn’t vote. Politicians focus on voters, and middle-class adults are much more likely to vote than working-class adults. The Republicans’ emphasis on “family values,” immigration issues, and similar themes are attempts to attract working-class support, while Democrats focus on labor unions and safety nets for the same reason. But partly because of low voter turnouts, I don’t think either party has truly found a theme that appeals to working-class voters.