Friday, July 20, 2012

who are the middle class?

In a recent speech, President Barack Obama referred to the “middle class” 14 times, defining it as a family that makes up to $250,000 a year. Republican challenger Mitt Romney has looked at it from the other direction, saying that someone who falls into poverty “is still middle class.” In the fuzzy labels and loose speech of politicians “middle class” cover just about everyone.

"Politicians love to use the term, because it’s vague and connotes an image of regular American people.” said Dennis Gilbert, a sociology professor at Hamilton College and author of “The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality.” He said, the varying uses of “middle class” on the campaign trail are “dishonest, and it’s absurd.”

When it comes to earnings, the Census Bureau divides household income into quintiles, or groups of 20 percent. Some economists narrowly define the middle class as those in the middle 20 percent of the distribution, earning between $38,000 and $61,000. Others define it more broadly to include the middle 60 percent of the income distribution, between $20,000 and $100,000. Defining who is poor, by contrast, is officially more absolute. The federal poverty line is based on the minimum income needed to have what the government considers a basic standard of living. Two times the poverty line is often a cutoff for “low-income” families who may be eligible for government aid. The poverty line currently is $22,314 for a family of four, meaning that a family making $44,000 could be both “low income” and “middle class.” Yet another way to gauge class is what income tax bracket you’re in. The IRS has six of them. This year, the bottom bracket sets a tax rate of 10 percent for taxable income up to $17,400 for couples. The top bracket is 35 percent, applied to taxable income above $388,350. The middle class is commonly seen as falling in the 15 and 25 percent brackets, or couples whose taxable income is between $17,400 and $142,700. But some define it all the way up to the second-highest bracket, which is 33 percent and includes taxable income up to $388,350.

Krueger, who is chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, offered a precise definition: households with annual incomes within 50 percent of the national median income. The current median income is $49,445, putting middle-class earnings in a range from $25,000 to $75,000. Democrats from higher cost-of-living areas, such as Sen. Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have sought to push the “middle class” definition higher, arguing that some families earning between $250,000 and $1 million in big cities such as New York and San Francisco are more likely to be dual-income worker bees than a wealthy elite.

Sociologists take a broader view and focus not on income, but occupation: an “upper middle class” of white-collar specialists (lawyers, engineers, professors, economists and architects); and a “middle class” of lower-level white-collar workers (teachers, nurses, insurance sales and real estate agents). Together, these groups make up about 45 percent of households and sit near the upper end of the income distribution, just behind the top 1 percent. The meanings shift more dramatically when measured by self-identification and quality of life.

Few Americans label themselves as upper class or lower class, which are seen as either pretentious or demeaning. Roughly 95 percent of adults say they are middle class (50 percent), upper middle class (13 percent) or working class (32 percent), according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in May. Just 2 percent describe themselves as “better off” than upper middle class. A separate ABC News poll found that being “middle class” often meant more to people than specific income levels, which can be affected by family size, expenses and local costs of living. At least two-thirds of adults said being middle class meant owning a home, being able to save for the future and afford things like vacation travel, the occasional new car and various other little luxuries, according to the 2010 poll. “Middle class’ in politics is not a numerical value,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “When voters hear ‘middle class,’ they don’t hear people who make above or below this amount of money, they hear ‘us.’ It’s a way for politicians to signal to voters that ‘I share your values.”’ Politicians mirror definitions of “middle class” that voters want to hear.

So what does the term really mean? The World Socialist Movement simplifies the definition. In the socialist theory the working class is made up of all those who have to get a living by selling their ability to work. It may be popular to vaguely talk about the 'middle class', but it is the two classes defined here that are the key to understanding capitalism. If you don’t own any means of production yourself you are working class because you are dependent for a living on going out onto the labour market and trying to find an employer to buy your working skills. This, whatever your occupation or income.  It is not a question of social origins. An individual born in the working class may well enter the capitalist class (and vice versa). Nevertheless a class tends to perpetuate itself along the lines of its social origins.

When politicians and media refer to the ‘working class’ they use the narrower meaning of people with low incomes, little power and less “cultural capital” (or what could be called sophistication). This is contrasted with ‘middle-class’ people who are a notch above on each of these scales. The ‘middle class’ is living the American Dream of gleaming affluence and clean-cut leisure. Socialists would not deny that workers may have a different style of life. We would merely deny that this is in any way a valid or relevant criticism of a definition of class. The correct position is that classes are defined by their relationship to the means of production.

Nor as is popularly supposed is a class made up of people getting near enough the same income. Some highly paid workers may get as much or more than some small capitalists. It does not mean therefore that they have an identity of interests. If you are a member of the so-called “middle class”, is your life better than a member of the “working class”? Well, your income may be higher, and this may enable you to obtain a better home, a better car, better food, better electronic goods, a better pension, better child education, better holidays. But then again...keeping hold of that larger home and bigger car depends on you not losing your higher income. Yet with globalised free markets, there comes unavoidable pressure on employers to minimise wages and maximise savings in order to stay in business and increase profits. This results in job losses from mergers and takeovers and that can lead to automation or out-sourcing. Previously “safe” occupations have already seen such loss or transfer of jobs. The golden guarantee pension you expected to enjoy after you retire turns out to have not been as successfully invested as you thought, leaving you with the prospect of either making do with a lower standard of living in your old age, or carry on working for longer.

Worst of all there's your failure to see that you never did belong to a superior middle class, since your exploitation to produce profits for employers meant you were in fact a member of the working class, with problems and suffering just as bad as experienced by those stacking supermarket shelves, selling McFood or sewing clothes in sweat shops. And by failing to see that you were all collectively exploited by capitalism – instead believing yourself to have been above others – you helped maintain the divisive system that unnecessarily cheated, manipulated and punished you all. Many left-wingers rely on having a palpable ‘enemy’, against whom one could vent one’s spleen and exact one’s revenge. But the trouble with this is, whom do you blame for the way a social system works? Our leaders? Or ourselves for following them? The rich? Or the poor for accepting their poverty? History doesn’t hold individuals responsible. Capitalism is the real enemy, not its managers and functionaries. The reason given for excluding these people from the working class is that they exercise some degree of control over the use of the means of production and/or authority over other workers; in short, because they perform some managerial role. To adopt this view is to abandon the relationship-to-the-means-of-production theory of class for one based on occupation. Socialists have always maintained that, as far as the actual production of wealth is concerned, the capitalist class are redundant. They play no part in production, which is run from top to bottom by hired workers of one sort or another. This means that all job, including those concerned with managing production and/or disciplining other members of the working class, are performed by members of the working class. To exclude then from the working class is to give more importance to the type of occupation than to the economic necessity of having to sell labor power for a wage or salary which for Marxists is the defining feature of the working class.

So who are the middle class? They are the muddled working class!

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