Why Americans All Believe They Are 'Middle Class'

A taxonomy of how we talk about class and wealth in the United States today

Last week, President Obama went on the road promoting an economic agenda for the middle class. As expected, John Boehner and other Republicans fired back by charging Obama with “squeezing the middle class.” It’s not even an election year, yet “middle class” is hotly contested linguistic real estate. But nobody seems to know what this term means.

“Middle class” remains our favored self-designation, although the percentage of Americans who select it fell from 53 percent in 2008 to 49 most recently, according to Pew Research. As a friend’s high-school teacher loved to say, “The great thing about America is that everyone can be middle class.” Good thing she wasn’t teaching math.

Given this popularity, it is no mystery why “in the interest of the middle class” now beats “for the children” as political cliché. The puzzle is why so many who do not fit the category (as median family income reported as just above $50,000 defines it) believe they do. Why does the description “middle-class nation” continue to feel appropriate, desirable, or both?

Researching how people’s unconscious assumptions affect their perception of economic issues, I explored the linguistic dynamics behind the term “middle class,” especially in comparison to other economic groupings. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a database of more than 450 million words from speeches, media, fiction, and academic texts, among the most common words (excluding conjunctions and prepositions among others) co-occurring with “middle class” we find “emerging,” “burgeoning,” “burdened,” and “squeezed.” These tell us what happens to this grouping. Absent are quantitative terms or descriptors for what life is like within this category. In fact, in common usage, we rarely hear about actual people named within it; middle class may as well describe a grouping of potted plants or pop cans. There’s little here tied to income or lifestyle.

Conversely, statements about “the wealthy” co-occur with terms like “investors,” “businessmen,” “patrons,” “owners,” and “donors.” What these words indicate is a sense of sources of income and, by extension, the amount compensated. The wealthy, in our language, aren’t acted upon but rather act as human members of a group who get things done and pay themselves to do it.

"Poor," once the meaning of low quality is filtered out, comes with “guy” and “girl” but also “homeless,” “sick,” “plight,” “needy,” and “suffering.” Those descriptors provide a sense what it’s like to be in this group day to day, and they make pretty clear it’s made up of people who aren’t allowed any or much income.

Poking into usage also confirms that Americans are relatively skittish about mentioning class. Contrasting databases of text from U.S. and UK sources, we find that Brits use “upper class” and “lower class” more readily; we prefer “wealthy” and “poor.” Yet we grant “middle class” plenty of airtime. This suggests it’s a frozen phrase, no longer rooted in the meaning of component parts that ought to designate economic status between two others. Instead, middle class has become a status, a brand – a label you opt to adopt.

From Real Housewives to pop stars, extreme wealth is on display all around us. Seeing this, Americans imbibe ideas of what life as a rich person means. And most folks, even in the 1 percent (that is, with incomes above about $500,000), can’t keep up with the Kardashians. They conclude they are not wealthy, so they tag themselves middle class. We’re far less keen to have the poor in view. Nevertheless, whether via images of bread lines or real life panhandlers, we have some sense of life without means. If homelessness is the salient exemplar, people are unlikely to say they’re “poor.”

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Anat Shenker-Osorio is an independent researcher and communications consultant and the author of Don't Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy.

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