During the post-war euphoria of the 1950s, Americans were convinced of a concept that has carried through into the next century. The “middle class” was a figment of someone’s imagination – probably a politician – and sold to the public as the ideal life. But the idea of a middle class has become as mythological as the Leave It To Beaver universe that created it.
As the presidential election year kicks into high gear, saving the dying middle class will be the subject of countless speeches. But how do you preserve something that no longer exists, if it ever did at all? The truth is, you can’t.
But who is the middle class? As it turns out, there is no consistent definition of this mythical group. Depending on the source, the middle class can be defined in a number of ways, from economic status to age and race demographics. So when you hear a politician spout off the words, “middle class,” the context is vital, otherwise it’s meaningless.
According to CNNMoney.com, one definition by the Pew Research Center is based on income. It lists the middle class as those Americans who earn between $46,900 and $140,900. Another marker has to do with aspirations.
Most people who consider themselves middle class want to own a home, send their kids to college, have proper healthcare and investment savings, a car, vacations, and so on. Obviously, that means that the money has to exist to make any of that a possibility so we’re back to financial definitions once again.
The simple fact of it is the concept of the middle class is a myth; a myth we have all been trapped into believing to the point of mass hysteria. The American dream does exist, but it’s far less detailed than we’ve been taught over the last 70 years or so, and it’s not as tied to the middle class as once thought.
Between the American Dream and the middle class, I’d much rather focus on the former; at least I know it’s ambiguous and depends on my own efforts, choices and aspirations. The American Dream is different for each person.
Yours might be to own a bookstore while your neighbor’s may simply be to be healthy and happy in his or her own way. But trying to be part of the middle class has done countless families harm over the years, struggling to “keep up with the Joneses,” and fighting the never ending war to amass “stuff” so as to appear successful.
As a political hot button, the idea that the middle class is suffering provides unlimited opportunity to yank at the heartstrings of conservatives. Liberals don’t seem to care as much about it. It all goes back to that subliminal mental tie-in between the middle class and the American dream.
The question remains, how do politicians evoke emotion over a group that doesn’t actually exist? Or, stated more correctly, a group that encompasses so many different kinds of people as to eliminate any particular demographic. Actually, it’s easier than you might think.
If politicians can keep that apple pie imagery flowing and preach doom and gloom over its demise, people will flock to the polls to protect it by voting for them. It’ll have the same effect as the anti-communist films of the 1950s and 60s depicting a family on a nice summer picnic when suddenly the nuclear bombs start dropping. Destroy the middle class and America dies.
But, once again, it’s impossible to destroy what doesn’t exist. The middle class is defined by whoever wants to use it to their benefit, to push their agenda. Oddly, I’d say the middle class is more about a state of mind of the individual than actual numbers.
We all just want to be normal, average Americans in similar status to our neighbors so we can relate to each other. In the end, I think we all just want to be financially stable and happy with our lives.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer. Deer In Headlines is distributed by GLD Enterprises Communications. More at gerydeer.com.