The middle distance

Defining middle class is the first step toward rebuilding it

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama said “our generation’s task” is to rebuild “a rising, thriving middle class.” But what is middle class in America? During last year’s campaign, Mitt Romney defined the middle class as anyone earning less than $200,000 a year; that’s 96 percent of the country. Economists favor the middle income quintiles from the census, which situate the middle class between about $20,000
and $100,000. Sociologists often prefer to use people’s self-identification—if you say you’re middle class, you’re middle class. In 2011, the Occupy movement effectively dispensed with the middle class altogether, pitting the superrich against everyone else, “the 99 percent.”

With the exception of those rare moments when the definition itself becomes news—as it did last September when Romney made his below-$200,000 remark—the media tend to use middle class without much qualification, as though everyone agrees on what it means.

The lack of a clear and evolved definition of middle class allows politicians and pundits to use the term—and its symbolic power—to add a gloss of everyman-legitimacy to their partisan agendas. Every election, then, is about helping the middle class and every candidate knows best how to do that.

Part of the problem is that the idea of the middle class, which took shape in the decades following World War II, is so ingrained in the national psyche, inseparable from the American Dream. We see our country as a place where anyone who works hard can acquire a home, an education, a retirement, etc. President Obama’s Middle Class Task Force said as much in its 2010 report: “Middle-class families are defined more by their aspirations than their income.”

However you define it, though, it has become increasingly difficult for people to achieve the comfort and security of a middle-class lifestyle over the last 30 years, as well-paid jobs vanished, wages stagnated, and the cost of education and healthcare soared.

Under these circumstances, how does one address the complex problem of rebuilding the middle class? The debate emanating from Washington seems hopelessly polarized: Democrat orthodoxy (government essential) vs. Republican orthodoxy (government essentially useless). Journalists can help impose some discipline on this conversation by more explicitly defining middle class. They can also follow the lead of David Rohde, of Reuters.

Last year, Rohde traveled the country (and the world) to learn what’s being done to strengthen the middle class. What he found is that, beyond the Beltway, the conversation about the middle class is much more pragmatic, and that there are leaders on both sides of the political divide who understand that to solve the problems Washington argues about requires compromise and innovation—and contributions from both government and the private sector.

For instance, Rohde wrote about a government-funded startup incubator in Raleigh, NC, that, unlike its more famous brethren in Research Triangle Park, is combining the strengths of the public and private sectors to help poor and working-class citizens (who lack the skills to compete for high-tech jobs) start small businesses like flower shops and auto-repair garages. Up the road in Chapel Hill, Rohde explored the idea of public universities as engines of private-sector economic development, writing about the University of North Carolina’s effort to help its professors turn their research into independent companies.

With his proposals for a higher minimum wage, universal preschool, manufacturing R&D, and the like, President Obama has provided a framework for the discussion about how to rebuild the middle class. It’s up to journalists to scrutinize these ideas, find out who they would help and how, and tell us what they would actually mean for a clearly defined middle class.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.