Middle-Class Moralities

By Wolfe, Alan | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Middle-Class Moralities


Wolfe, Alan, The Wilson Quarterly


America was born the world's first bourgeois republic and has proudly defined itself ever since as, above all, a middle-class nation. Yet the 1992 election was the first in recent memory in which both parties wrapped themselves unambiguously in middle-class symbols. The Democrats, who once seemed to champion every group that was too poor (or too unconventional) to qualify as middle class, nominated a Southern Baptist of modest Arkansas beginnings for the presidency, and he, after carefully consulting with party elders, chose another Southern Baptist as his running mate. Neither, it seemed, was ever photographed without an American flag in the background. The Republicans, whose economic policies during the 1980s worked to the benefit of everyone above the middle class, fell into a Keystone Kops scramble to find an issue that would rally middle-class voters. And even as the two parties redoubled their efforts to woo the mighty middle, a Texas billionaire attracted millions of disaffected suburbanites to his quixotic campaign.

Middle-class anxieties about the economy, crime, and social issues seem certain to dominate American politics for years to come. Yet it has become very difficult to define clearly what it means to be middle class. The nation's images of bourgeois life are increasingly obsolete: yeoman farmer, small-town merchant, independent entrepreneur, male breadwinner, stay-at-home mom, well-paid factory worker, hard-working school teacher, self-employed lawyer, family physician. Is Zoe Baird, whose name was never mentioned without note of her $500,000 income, middle class? Are the mostly blue-collar Reagan Democrats? Is a former executive who is struggling to start a new business but in reality living on his wife's income as a social worker? Is anyone without health insurance, whatever his or her income? Are blacks who have made it to the suburbs? Korean grocers? Divorced mothers of small children? An assistant professor of anything? As we watch more Americans fall from the middle class, we ought to know at what point we should begin to roll out the nation's safety net. But even spelling out a formula in dollars and cents is nearly impossible. We cannot even decide at what point we consider people rich. Candidate Bill Clinton pledged to make the rich pay a larger share of the nation's taxes, but the definition of rich has bounced around. President Clinton's tax plan now calls for higher income taxes on couples earning more than $140,000, and a special "millionaires'" surcharge on those earning more than $250,000.

It may be hard to determine where the economic boundary lines of middle-class life should be drawn, but it is not that difficult to figure out what has happened to the core of the middle class during the 1980s and '90s. Most sensibly defined, a middle-class job is one that makes it possible to afford certain basics: a home of one's own, a car or two, and some child care. By this definition, middle-class jobs have most definitely disappeared over the past 15 years. There is much truth to the notion that the middle class, as economists Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane write, has been "hollowed out": More people have moved to points where the middle class blends into the class above or the class below.

This change has its roots in the economic turmoil of the 1970s. In 1973, the year the first oil crisis began, the country entered an era of slower economic growth, and in 1979 income inequality began a comparatively rapid increase. Because of this relatively clear turning point in time, one can picture two middle classes in America: one that rose to its status when economic growth was assumed and opportunity abundant, and one that achieved its status at a time when very little could be taken for granted. What divides these two groups is not how much money their members make but the different degrees of effort involved in making it. So different are the experiences of these two middle classes that, for all their economic similarity, they have little in common culturally or morally.

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