This past weekend, I found myself drawn into the discussion of the middle class and middle class aspirations on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes (otherwise known as “Uppers”). It was a good and yet wholly unsatisfying discussion of technical definitions of what middle class is and of the political optics of only discussing the middle class as a socioeconomic category. Chris Hayes and his guests justified this with an all-too-common refrain. “If you’re poor, you’re aspiring to be middle class,” Hayes said on Saturday. With that, Hayes and his guests rendered America’s poor invisible, and failed to see beyond the politics of invisibility in the process.
There are two issues here, and many layers within them, about America’s poor, working, on welfare, or otherwise. One issue is that journalists, commentators, political operatives and most politicians treat the poor as if they are an unknowable group of people. It’s as if they all think the same way, as if there are all Black or of color, and a complete drag on the American economy and the federal budget. And that’s on a day in which the media and politics deem America’s poor as discussable. Most of the time, America’s poor are invisible, shoved into the middle class category by commentators and politicians at every turn.
Yes, America’s middle class is struggling too, fighting tooth and nail to not slip into the class of the invisible working poor, treading water to avoid food banks and food stamps. But they have something to struggle with — and for — at least. Their homes, their cars, a retirement account, their families’ net worth, all accoutrements of being middle class in America. America’s poor don’t possess anything to struggle with or for.
Except, maybe, with their vote, if they care to vote at all. Yet no mainstream commentator nor presidential candidate has truly spoken to their needs, their plight, to how their situation is completely interconnected with the struggles of the American middle class, not their aspirations. Not Chris Hayes, nor his weekend compadre, Melissa Harris-Perry, not President Barack Obama, and definitely not the presumptive GOP nominee, Mitt Romney.
It’s a story I’m all too familiar with, as someone who grew up in poverty in Mount Vernon, New York. Not to mention as someone who had to go to college and graduate school and then struggled for two years at part-time work before finding a job with a Ph.D. in ’99 (see my “The Five Senses of Poverty” post from July ’10). I was thirty years old by the time I earned a middle class income. Yet in all of that time, the only mainstream politician who spent time on the issues of the American poor as if these were real people was President Jimmy Carter, and we know what happened with him. Outside of my degrees and my publications, I was invisible until the fall of ’99.
Otherwise, it’s been four decades of Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton concerned with “welfare queens,” “pink Cadillacs,” and “mend it, don’t end it” welfare policies, and the media following suit. It’s like being kicked hard by someone as one is laying on the ground with broken ribs and internal hemorrhaging, as if they want to poor to die, painfully.
But it’s not just the ones with microphones and word processing programs that kill America’s poor by rendering them invisible. Despite the general notion that the media and politicians nurture — that everyone not rich aspires to be firmly entrenched in the middle class — most Americans middle class and poor aspire to be rich, wealthy, well-off.
This is the other neglected issue, whether inadvertent like with Chris Hayes and his guests on Uppers, or deliberate on the part of President Obama and Romney. Why so? Because they don’t acknowledge that it’s hard to be truly middle class in America these days. To be in the middle class, one must borrow, borrow, borrow, beg and sometimes steal while struggling to pay student loans, car notes, a mortgage and child care costs.
This wasn’t the case even thirty years ago, before the severe double-dip recession, high interest rates and inflation and Reagan Revolution took full hold. Then, a high school diploma and raw initiative was all most folks needed to find a job at a GM plant or to get an administrative job in government or with a large corporation (although, typing at 90 words per minute enhanced a woman’s chances, at least). Now, two years of college or postsecondary technical training, some experience in a specialized field, and a personal connection is the floor for a living wage — not exactly middle class. Of course, no one wants to be in the basement with nearly one in five Americans, 50 million in all, working just to be poor.
America’s poor and fledgling middle class both aspire to be rich (or die tryin’), and not just middle class. The rise of fundamentalist Christianity, mega-churches and the cult of prosperity as these pastors reimagine the New Testament. The endless lines for Powerball and Mega Millions whenever the pot is more than $100 million. The fascination with reality shows about the well-off or about competing to be well-off. All of this is the manifestation of the warping of the American Dream since the early 1970s, where the pursuit of riches has led to debt slavery for millions.
The old American Dream has become myth, and the old American middle class is but the story of Camelot, Timbuktu and Shangri-La. In our new world, “the poor will be with us always” has been made a plain and unyielding truth by those in power, reinforced by those with a media platform.