Defining the Middle Class

Defining the Middle Class

I recently read this article in The Chicago Tribune concerning the ambiguous definition of the “middle-class” and how freely the term is tossed around in conversation, the media and in politics. The article cites a number of studies, including one by the U.S. Census Board. The combination of results placed the “middle-class” mark between 40,000 and 100,000 dollars of income per year, per family. As you can see by these “scientific” results, the divide between poverty and wealth is growing … or at least the idea of it is.

The article leaves me with the same question it poses in the opening paragraph – What is the middle-class? Is it a specific number? Is it really a margin of income?

I decided to ask the people in my community if they could describe what the middle-class was in three sentences or less. Most of the immediate responses were “hmm.” After a minute of thought, the guy behind the counter at my local convenience store replied, “I guess … people around here.” He’s referring to my hometown of Pitman, New Jersey. According to the 2000 census, the median family income for Pitman was $49,743. This is halfway off from Sociologist Leonard Beeghley’s identification of $97,000 as a typical middle class family.

Sociologists love to give names to everything. Some of them have officially split the middle-class into even more classes! Fun! These include the “professional middle-class,” the “lower middle-class,” the “working class,” the “vernacular middle-class,” etc. Each with its own name and comprehensive definition backed by statistics, graphs, and bullshit.

A teenager loitering outside of the convenience store gave an interesting answer to my question, “People who thought American Beauty was a great movie. People who watch Jeopardy. People who have broken household appliances.” He was being sarcastic, but I think out of all the answers I receieved, it was the most honest and thought-provoking assesment. Is “middle-class” a cultural identity based on a way of life? Is “middle-class” possesion oriented? Do the numbers really mean anything? What is the “war on middle-class”? Does it exist?

Tags: chicagosuburbs

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