Culture and the Middle Classes

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Greater wealth may provide greater economic security, as a buffer against economic shocks, especially in later life.

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For example, some retirees may report very little annual income but place toward the top of the wealth distribution given the value of their homes, pension assets, and bank accounts. Wealth-based definitions appear to resonate with the general public. Wolff defines the middle class as the middle three quintiles of the wealth distribution. His analysis also reveals differences in the ways that the middle and upper classes store wealth.

The wealth of the top quintile is highly concentrated in investment assets, including real estate, business equity, stocks, and bonds. By contrast, housing makes up more than three-fifths of the assets of the middle three quintiles, though mortgage debt amounts to almost half of middle-class home values. Homeownership might indeed be a defining feature of the middle class—but according to Wolff, so is mortgage debt. While income is the most common cash-based measure of class, followed by wealth, some scholars point to other approaches, including consumption-based definitions, or those which capture financial vulnerability or risk.

On this basis, what matters most is not what we bring home, but what we can buy. Other studies focus on some measure of vulnerability to poverty , or on income volatility , or on economic progress for specific individuals or families over time. We will return to these specific issues of volatility, risk, and vulnerability in a later paper. What unites all of these approaches is that they share the same basic currency for class determination, money—whether in earnings, income, wealth, spending, or over time.


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The middle class, here, is an economic category. Of course, for most people, their economic position is strongly related to their credentials, of either the educational or the occupational kind. Or they may be the way in which class is more usefully defined; and we turn to those next. But most people see class as being about more than money. Status is defined not just by cash, but by particular credentials, especially in terms of occupation and education. We may intuitively rank a museum curator with a PhD differently from an HVAC engineer with a certificate from a community college, even if their incomes are identical; and perhaps even if we knew their lifetime incomes would be the same.

There is an international divide here: occupational classifications are more popular among European scholars than U. Most contemporary occupational class schemes are based on the work of British sociologist John H. Goldthorpe and colleagues. These include, for instance, human resources specialists, K teachers, and physical therapists. Murray also divides the population into the top 20, middle 50, and bottom 30 percent of socioeconomic status, based on the cognitive requirements of their occupations.

Here he is drawing on a literature on occupational status , in which particular occupations are placed on a distribution of status scores, somewhat like an income distribution. As always, however, the selection of specific dimensions, or the weight placed on those selected, can generate very different rankings. Hauser and Warren show that some occupations, like elementary school teachers, have low wages relative to occupations with similar education levels, but high prestige ratings relative to their education and earnings.

Other occupations, like truck drivers, have high earnings relative to their education, but low prestige relative their education and earnings. So: are truck drives and elementary teachers in the same class? One problem with occupation-based definitions is that while occupations are held by individuals, class is typically applied to families or households.

But what if, say, a husband and wife have occupations with quite different statuses? Perhaps one is a professor and the other is a firefighter. Class categories may then be skewed towards male occupations. Equally, the use of simple occupational categories may obscure important differences between the position of men and women within occupations. Finally, occupation-based class schemes have to be regularly updated as certain occupations become more or less important to the economy and society. Entry into occupations of a certain class status depends on acquiring certain skills or qualifications.

Occupational and educational credentials tend to go hand in hand. Education is also seen by many as a strong marker of class status in and of itself. Most often, possession of a four-year college degree serves as the threshold for determining class position. This is both because education or degree attainment is a relatively easy and consistent variable to measure and because it is closely correlated with other indicators of economic status, like income.

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Education is, at its core, an investment in human capital, which often yields large returns in the form of higher incomes and wealth accumulation. In , the average worker ages with a college degree or more earned about 35 percent more than the average worker with a high school degree. By , this premium had increased to nearly 80 percent. College-educated workers tend to experience greater job stability and autonomy than those with lower levels of education.

In the wake of the U. The implication here is that those with a college degree are middle class. But this is not a general view in the population.

The Middle Classes

Fewer than one in three 30 percent of Americans believe that a college education is needed to be considered part of the middle class, according to a recent Pew survey. Popular definitions of middle class status may then overlap with expert definitions of the working class. Yet few would claim that the middle class is the same as the working class—that is, limited to only those without a college degree.

One problem associated with defining the middle class by education is that the relative values of educational credentials change over time. Another problem is that the value of a college degree can vary wildly across fields. Education levels can be used to supplement rather than substitute for other measures of class status. This means that the middle class contains roughly 55 percent of all households: 50 who are in the middle of the income distribution, and 5 who have reached a high income bracket, despite never completing a four-year degree.

The definition used by Williams and Boushey has the advantage of inclusiveness—it intentionally includes a portion of the population who, defined by income alone, would be omitted from the middle class. However, the measure ends up being more complex, and more influenced by normative assumptions. It is striking that when Williams summarized her work on this group in an influential book, its title was White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. She is upfront about the reason for the shift in nomenclature:.

I wanted to call the group in the middle the middle class, because, well, they are. The main exception is the use of prestige rankings for occupations. These allow for more robust analyses of trends, prospects, and challenges. But for many, class is a state of mind. The full definition is worth quoting at length:. They strive for economic stability and therefore desire to own a home and to save for retirement. They want economic opportunities for their children and therefore want to provide them with a college education.

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And they want enough income for each adult to have a car and for a family vacation each year. Middle class families are forward-looking, and they know that to achieve these goals, they must work hard, plan ahead and save for the future. Indeed, being middle class may be as much about setting goals and working to achieve them as it is about their attainment. Here, class is very much about a mindset rather than a bank balance or job category. The key ingredients of a middle-class lifestyle, according to the report, are to: own a home, be able to save for retirement, provide a college education for their children, have health security insurance , a car for each adult, and a family vacation at least once a year.

This is essentially a form of consumption definition, with middle class aspirations defined in terms of middle-class expenditures. This lifestyle is hard to achieve for some families. But note that in this case, the definition of the middle class includes not only people who have achieved a middle-class lifestyle, but also those people who are aspiring and working hard to achieve this lifestyle.

This kind of definition is very inclusive, since in principle everyone can count as middle class as long as they are aspiring and working toward a certain lifestyle. But this very inclusiveness gives the definition less bite. After all, few people do not aspire to these goods.

Many people might aspire to a middle-class lifestyle, and work toward it, but not make it because of the very economic and social challenges the report describes. It might be better to show that the pathways into the middle class are narrower and more challenging to travel than they should be, and that many people are thwarted in their efforts to join the middle class.

A number of surveys capture self-definitions of class in the U. Each use slightly different class categories, however, and these seem to influence results quite significantly:. More people define themselves as working class when there are only two options further up middle or upper, in the GSS , than when there are three higher levels middle, upper-middle, upper, in Gallup.

The Pew survey also captures information on income brackets, providing some sense of how a particular income level might influence self-perceived class status. The relationship is in the expected direction, with respondents living in higher-income households ranking themselves higher in terms of class:. Brian Cashell takes the innovative approach of combining surveys capturing self-definitions of class to determine the upper and lower income thresholds.

He concludes :. But the term is used so often, it is worth the effort to attach some numbers to it. Assuming that this represents an income level for a household of three close to the size of the average U. Another way to define class is not through what people earn, or do for a living, but how they live. Together, these three classes represent almost half of the UK population. Culture can be seen as a shorthand for some of the attitudinal or aspirational characteristics described earlier.

But a taste for certain kinds of high culture can also be a reflection or market of class status, even at similar levels of income and education, as an analysis of the GSS data by researchers for the National Endowment for the Arts finds.


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So far we have examined the economic conditions, credentials, and attitudes of the middle class. But there is another question that has to be asked about the middle class, especially in the U. The racist history of the U. It is true, based on certain income thresholds, that the middle class is becoming more diverse over time.