The Middle Class Blames Everyone but the Middle Class for Our Economy

After a pretty lousy decade, middle-class Americans are ready to blame just about everyone for the economic troubles they've faced -- except, it seems, themselves.   

The Pew Research Center is out with a new report that chronicles the financial woes middle-income families have experienced over the past ten years while exploring their thoughts on politics and the economy. When asked how much they blamed various institutions for their difficulties, self-described middle classers were happy to point the finger at Congress (and really, who can blame them), the banks, corporations, and the last few presidencies. They were much less likely to take personal responsibility. 

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Now, this might be a reasonable interpretation of recent history. Forty-two percent of survey takers did lay at least a little bit of blame on their fellow middle classers. And yet, we are talking about a decade defined by an epic housing boom and bust fueled by reckless middle-class borrowing, not to mention some inept policy decisions made by politicians elected, in large part, by middle-class voters. By 2004, debt-to-income ratios for middle class families had more than doubled from twelve years earlier. Nobody forced them to break out their credit cards or to take out exotic mortgages. You don't have to minimize the role of banks and politicians  in order to acknowledge that families living on main street played a big role creating our present problems too. 

The impulse to blame the other guy manifests itself pretty strongly when the results are broken down by party affiliation. Republicans are hesitant to cast aspersions upon the Bush Administration. Democrats were even less likely to do so with Obama. 

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Defining who counts as middle class is always a bit delicate. But survey takers seemed to have a relatively realistic concept of who belonged under that banner. According to Pew's analysis of census data, a family of three making $39,418 to $118,255 fell into America's middle income range. And as Pew noted, "The size of the middle, whether based on household incomes in 2010 or based on self-described class in the 2012 survey, turns out to be nearly identical." (That said, I would love to know who the 6 percent of people making a $100,000  a year who consider themselves lower class are.) 

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So a large proportion of actual middle class Americans don't see how they might have played a role in some of their own misfortune. Without trying to demonize people who may have been victimized by shady lenders or bad circumstances, I don't think that speaks well for the country's understanding of what happened during the last decade. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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