Dear Presidential Candidates, We’re not all Middle-Class
Last Wednesday night the terms “middle-income” and “middle-class” were mentioned 34 times over the course of the first 90-minute so-called presidential “debate.”The phrases rolled jauntily off the tongues of both candidates as they attempted to make impassioned appeals to what is often seen as the most important voting bloc.
Applying a term without first defining it, however, is the hallmark of ideology. Marx’s “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (“they do not know it, but they are doing it”) expression from Das Capital represents the most incisive definition of ideology to date. Ideology in its most elemental form entails unwittingly maintaining the taken-for-granted categorical presuppositions and omissions around which we choose to organize the world. And our collective presumption of “middle-classness” is one such ideological ruse.
Unfortunately, we Americans know troublingly little about income distribution and our relative position in it. We all seem to think we’re part of the ubiquitous “middle class” because, well, we’ve rarely bothered to hazard a definition. For instance, according to an April 2007 poll by CBS News only 2 percent of the 994 adults surveyed said they were "upper class.” 7 percent said they were "lower class.”
Class, of course, is as much a cultural concept as it is an economic one. There needn’t necessarily be any natural correlation between cultural habits and remuneration, and as such the relationship between class and income is often mystified. For example, the perceived high cultural class standing of, say, an adjunct professor, doesn’t necessary reflect her low income or job insecurity. For this reason it seems sensible to sidestep a theoretical discussion pertaining to the ideological convergences and divergences between class and wage for the sake of underscoring what’s at stake politically in the term “middle-income.”
Although all concepts have limitations, perhaps the most compelling way to capture the essence of what it means to be “middle income” is to consider the U.S. Census Bureau’s income distribution data by quintile. According to this categorization, households earning from $38,521-$62,434 annually inhabit the middle (3rd) quintile and represent those with incomes between 40-60 percent of the total U.S. income distribution. Want to know where you stand? See table below:
The term “middle-income,” of course, is highly contested and therefore always remains subject to redefinition in service of the status quo. For instance, there are many politicians like President Obama and Governor Romney, who, wishing to maintain myth that “we’re all middle class,” will argue that those in the 2nd quintile—$20,263-$38,520—also constitute middle-income earners. Their claim is easy enough to discredit. The U.S. government, in fact, tacitly admits that the 2nd quintile is decidedly low-income. Here’s how.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—an federal agency under the aegis of the Department of Health and Human Services—classifies those living at 133 percent or below the federal poverty line (FPL) as “low-income” for the purposes of Medicaid eligibility. Today, a family of four living at 133 percent of the FPL earns $30,657 annually and accounts for over half of those in the Census Bureau’s 2nd quintile classification.
Further, when household income levels are disaggregated by race it turns out that the median household income for Black ($32,229) and Latino ($38,624) families effectively falls below the Census Bureau’s middle quintile designation. In other words, the average Black and/or Latino family in 2012 cannot be classified as middle-income.
Data like these have determinative implications for campaign discourse and beg a simple question: why isn’t any major party candidate speaking candidly about low-income people, the working poor, or the indigent? With a full 15 percent of Americans living below the poverty line—7 percent of which live below half of the poverty line—and another 30 percent between the FPL and double it, all this talk of the middle-class seems misplaced and misguided. It’s pure ideology.
So as the campaign season trundles on we must as ourselves the following question: am I truly a middle-income American or is that what I’ve come to believe because a wealthy politician told me so? And moreover, are my interests being legitimately represented on the campaign trail?
We must demand that presidential candidates, including third party candidates, address issues disproportionately affecting low-income families and propose policy solutions in consultation with our communities. Perhaps the first step necessary for tackling the seemingly insoluble challenges associated with poverty is to shed the ruinous illusion that we’re all middle-income people, that we’re all middle-class.
Poverty is rampant.
Food insecurity is widespread.
Involuntary homelessness is pervasive.
And until we’re willing to acknowledge these realities squarely then we’ll continue to magnify the “middle” while minimizing an already underrepresented majority.