Are We Still a Middle-Class Nation?

It's no accident that the United States has always been an economic paradise for the middle class—that class was invented and reinvented by the government. Now the government needs to reinvent it again—before it's too late

In 1909 Herbert Croly, the founding editor of The New Republic and one of the patron saints of the twentieth-century progressive-liberal tradition, published his manifesto, The Promise of American Life. "The Promise of America," he wrote, "has consisted largely in the opportunity which it offered of economic independence and prosperity." According to Croly,

The native American, like the alien immigrant, conceives the better future which awaits himself and other men in America as fundamentally a future in which economic prosperity will be still more abundant and still more accessible than it has yet been either here or abroad ... With all their professions of Christianity their national idea remains thoroughly worldly ... The Promise, which bulks so large in their patriotic outlook, is a promise of comfort and prosperity for an ever increasing majority of good Americans.

The idea that the promise of American life lay in widespread material prosperity as much as in civil liberties or political democracy is an old one. As Croly pointed out, in 1782 Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote in his Letters From an American Farmer,

What, then is the American, this new man? ... Wives and children, who before in vain demanded of him a morsel of bread, now, fat and frolicsome, gladly help their father to clear those fields, whence exuberant crops are to arise to feed and to clothe them all; without any part being claimed, either by a despotic prince, a rich abbot, or a mighty lord ... From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labor, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. This is an American.

The equation of America with widespread middle-class prosperity persists today. Of the millions of people who came to the United States following the resumption of large-scale immigration in the last third of the twentieth century, a few were refugees from political or religious persecution. Most, however, wanted what previous generations of European immigrants had sought: "America has been peopled by Europeans primarily because they expected in that country to make more money more easily," Herbert Croly wrote.

America, then, is not simply the land of political liberty. It has always also been an economic paradise for the middle class—at least until now.

A History of the Middle Class

What exactly does it mean to say that the United States is a middle-class society?

In the pre-modern societies of Europe the terms "burgher" (German) and "bourgeoisie" (French) referred to the minority of largely urban merchants and professionals who were above the peasant majority and below the minority of landholding aristocrats. But when Americans talk about the middle class, they are not talking about burghers or the bourgeoisie. What makes the United States and similar societies middle-class is the economic predominance of the middling sort, no matter what their major source of employment happens to be.

Thus the American middle class has migrated from sector to sector over the past two centuries. The "fat and frolicsome" yeoman farmers of Crèvecoeur and Jefferson became the well-paid factory workers of William McKinley and Henry Ford, and then moved to the suburbs to become white-collar "organization men" (or, less frequently, women) after World War II. Over the years the social prestige of various economic sectors rose as the middle-class center of gravity passed through them. In medieval England "clown" and "villain" were words for the farmer who later became the symbol of middle-class rural America. In the eighteenth century yeoman farmers and aristocrats alike despised the "greasy mechanic," who by the early twentieth century had been promoted to middle-class factory worker. In the fiction of Victorian Britain and Gilded Age America the office worker was a miserable, stunted figure—Scrooge's assistant Bob Cratchit, or Bartleby the scrivener. But after World War II the cringing, bleary-eyed clerk became the confident professional who left his suburban home armed with a briefcase—Ward Cleaver, of Leave It to Beaver.

To most of us, the transition from farmer to industrial worker to service worker—sometimes within three generations of one family—appears in retrospect to have been inevitable, like some geological process. Indeed, many conservatives and libertarians seem to believe that a mass middle class is an inevitable by-product of capitalism. The truth is that each of America's successive middle classes has been artificially created by government-sponsored social engineering—a fact that is profoundly important for us to admit as we think about the future of middle-class America.

Consider the first American middle class, composed of yeoman farmers. There could never have been a mass agricultural middle class in the United States without vast quantities of cheap farmland, divided up into small farms.

From 1800 to 1848 the U.S. government acquired more than two million square miles of territory, much of it arable, by purchase or negotiation (the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803; Florida from Spain in 1819; Oregon from Britain in 1846), by annexation (Texas, 1845), or by conquest (the Mexican Cession in 1848). Populists sought to ensure that this land went to small farmers rather than large landowners or speculators. The danger of European-style feudalism in the United States was neutralized by the land ordinance of 1785, which guaranteed that the federal domain would be broken up into "fee simple" properties, with no complex web of multiple ownership. And the Homestead Act of 1862 provided 160 acres of free public land to settlers who would live on it and improve it for at least five years. Meanwhile, the federal government subsidized continent-crossing railroads, and the Army Corps of Engineers built much of the country's rural infrastructure. This was social engineering on a colossal scale.

The story was similar for the second American middle class, made up of prosperous urban industrial workers. From Abraham Lincoln to Herbert Hoover, American politics was dominated by a bargain between capitalists and workers; high tariffs on imports served the interests of both, by protecting goods from foreign competition. In addition, the dominant industrial labor force successfully lobbied the government to protect it from competition with other groups. In the late nineteenth century Congress cut off "Oriental" immigration, and after World War I—with the support of organized labor—it cut large-scale European immigration. Before World War I informal discrimination prevented southern black Americans from moving to the Northeast and the Midwest to compete for industrial jobs. Finally, child-labor laws removed children from the work force, and "family wage" or "breadwinner" systems—which paid married fathers more than unmarried, childless men—encouraged married women to become homemakers. Today nostalgic conservatives attribute the prosperity of the 1920s to free enterprise. In reality the market was rigged.

A product of the early industrial era, the second American middle class was largely limited to the industrial states of the Northeast and the Midwest. Unlike the factory workers in those states, the rural majority in the South and the West did not share in the income gains from industrialization; tariffs were, in effect, a tax imposed on them to subsidize urban workers and capitalists. The protectionist system also hurt the professional elite, because it raised prices on high-end consumer goods. Economics goes a long way toward explaining why elite progressives from the North teamed up with southern and western populists in the New Deal coalition that lasted from 1932 until the 1960s. The New Dealers created the third American middle class.

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