Tuesday, September 18, 2012

back to the future: who is middle class?

Here we are again: Barack Obama is running for president and we get mired in a debate about what constitutes "middle class."

I'm definitely less comfortable than I was four years ago drawing lines between the classes. I'm more cognizant now of the fact that people's income levels shift dramatically over the course of their lives, one key fact among many that Romney clearly is clueless about in his ignorant, elitist tirade against "the 47%."

Last time we talked a lot of median incomes and buying power and whatnot, but I think our whole conversation missed a crucial point: class is about much more than income levels. Either that, or in our society people frequently move from working class (college) to middle class (first job) to upper middle class (highest position) to working class (retirement) over the course of a lifetime. If that's the case, then "class" is nothing but a shorthand for how much you make at a particular moment, with no identifiable indicators of culture or power or anything else.

The point of "class" as a political concept is its connotations of privilege or the lack thereof, or as a sociological concept, in its connotations of a distinct sub-culture. The fact that we can't adequately define our classes, can't point to many things that are obviously exclusive to this or that class, is a good thing. The fact that the few things we can point to generally have a racial subtext is, obviously, less good. Conversations about privilege are mucked up by the prominent role of racism and modern-day segregation in shaping American attitudes toward each other, and the homogenizing forces like television have flattened cultural distinctions between classes.

I still think this it's ridiculous to put those making $200k/year in the same class as those making $40k/year. These two groups live worlds apart. Beyond that, it's harder to say.

No comments: