Defining “Middle Class”

Joe Biden and the White House Task Force on the Middle Class

In the midst of the debates leading up to the recent presidential election, the governor of Alaska said something to the effect that she understands middle class values and struggles because of her experience “in the middle class of America, which is where Todd and I have been, you know, all of our lives.” Although earlier the Anchorage Daily News revealed the Palin family’s net worth at about $1.2 million, Palin’s statement wasn’t strictly criticized. Social class has long been a matter of faith rather than a strictly verifiable fact; if Sarah Palin wants to call herself “middle class,” she can go right ahead and do so.

But this makes the recent task of Palin’s erstwhile opponent, Vice President Joe Biden, all the more interesting. President Obama recently announced that Biden will chair a new White House task force on the middle class. The press seems to be oddly uncritical of this new venture. David Stout at The New York Times did point out that:

The president and vice president did not precisely define the “middle class,” a term used in conversation and politics to describe aspirations as well as income levels. But it was clear that they were not speaking of the Wall Street people who shared in the enormous bonuses that Mr. Obama denounced on Thursday.

The coverage didn’t get much more critical than that. But perhaps it should have.

First of all, the name itself. According to the White House Web site, the committee is called White House Task Force on Middle Class Working Families. The committee treats “middle class” as if it were merely an adjectival phrase to describe “working families.” If so, this is a dramatically new use of the term “middle class.” The trouble is that the middle class and the working class are different things, and are, in fact, historically at odds.

The “middle class” includes professionals, highly skilled workers, and lower and middle management. “Working class,” in contrast, is typically synonymous with the proletariat, and refers to the segment of society dependent on physical labor and compensated with an hourly wage. The middle class is concerned with things like paying for college. The working class worries about its jobs moving overseas. The interests of the two classes may sometimes overlap, but they are not the same.

Does this sort of thing matter? Well, maybe. Today, in an economic downturn, when most people are feeling recessionary pressure, the interests of the middle and working classes may be congruent. Both are worried about their financial futures. But this is not always true.

The committee’s goals are vague, and the first event scheduled for Biden’s task force is “Green Jobs: A Pathway to a Strong Middle Class.” Perhaps they are, but it is unclear what the Biden task force is supposed to accomplish. Is the task supposed to a) expand the middle class, b) improve what it means to be middle class, or c) condense the middle class (since one could argue that the primary reason for the latest financial crisis was the promotion of one of the very worst of middle class characteristics, namely the unnecessary acquisition of possessions)?

The discussion of this new task force is often fused with a discussion about labor unions, as if strong labor was synonymous with the middle class. Lou Dobbs, supposedly a big defender of the “middle class,” makes this mistake, too, saying in 2006 that:

Our country’s middle class is not just collateral damage in what has become all-out class warfare. Political, business and academic elites are waging an outright war on working men and women and their families, and there is no chance the American middle class will survive this assault if the dominant forces unleashed over the past five years continue unchecked.

This is despite the fact that, historically, the middle class—small business owners and company managers—are opposed to the interests of organized labor.

The Biden task force may be simply an exercise in public relations, an effort to appear to do something for people who want help, as both the middle and working class do now. Its vague name reflects this rather vague mandate. For obvious reasons, the “White House Task Force on the Proletariat” is an unworkable title. But it’s odd that a committee charged with addressing the financial problems facing many American families is hampered by a title that would seem to obscure the actual economic interests of the different groups it purports to serve. And it’s unfortunate that the press hasn’t shown much interest in pointing that out.

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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.