Paul’s Perambulations

December 5, 2009

What do we mean by the much-used phrase “middle class”?

Filed under: Politics,Work — admin @ 7:38 pm

Click Comment to read my response to a friend’s blog post that discussed “middle class” spending habits:


  1. The phrase “middle class” is often used nowadays to describe most everybody and so has almost no meaning. The conventional definition of middle class is based on the median household income. (There are other possible definitions, but I think this that this is the one you had in mind, because you particularly mention income level.) You refer to a “middle-class family in which both mother and father have professional jobs or a single mother is working and making a very good living; let’s call it six-figures in income in either case.”

    As David Leonhardt reported in A Decade With No Income Gains (New York Times, September 10, 2009):

    “…the big news from the Census Bureau’s annual report on income, poverty and health insurance, which was released this morning. Median household fell to $50,303 last year, from $52,163 in 2007. In 1998, median income was $51,295. All these numbers are adjusted for inflation.”

    I realize that break-outs by state and family size can produce a distribution of figures relating to this central figure, but I will go with these census figures.

    When my children were growing up, I used to explain to them that we were financially “middle class” because our family income was typically only slightly higher than the median income level reported in government publications. For more than four decades I received fairly regular raises that closely tracked the increase in the cost of living, so that when I retired at the end of last year my total annual income (including summer work) was about $60,000 (up from initially $8,000 plus summer work). This supported a family of five. For some, that’s a good reason not to get a Ph.D. and go into college academics. Personally, this is no complaint, because I come from a line of well-educated medium-income families and knew what I was getting into.

    I have found it interesting that common ad hominem attacks against my socialist views tend to follow two mutually exclusive arguments relative to my financial situation.

    1. I only support socialism for personal reasons. I am too rich to be a socialist and am only an academic faking any solidarity with the average worker’s financial situation.

    2. I only support socialism for personal reasons. I have so little money that I am a socialist only because I want to get other folks’ hard earned money for myself.

    Comment by admin — February 13, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

  2. And once again the NYTimes has an article conflating the downward mobility of older workers who spent a life time as spenders in an upper-middle-class SES, with those who have lived their lives in poverty. Folks need to do their best to prepare for the fact that as we get older, we get slower (both in learning and performance) and less healthy, and thus our job status is weakened in this profit-driven society. Wake up!

    Comment by admin — September 20, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

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