One of the things that has driven me nuts over the past three decades is how we in this country walk in silence around issues of wealth and social class. We must never speak of our wealth, or poverty, lest we risk embarrassing ourselves or appearing arrogant. All Americans with an income between $20,000 and $20 million a year are middle class, not upper middle class, not affluent, not rich, just middle class.
Any mention of the top three percent in income (people whose income is more than $250,000 a year) amounts to class warfare, even though they control some 35-40 percent of the nation’s $57 trillion in wealth. No, poverty and affluence are relative, not absolute, and can only be measured subjectively,
through one’s own experience. Which is why any mention of our troubles is closer to sacrilege than declaring that there isn’t a God, especially in a nation that prints “In God We Trust” on its money.
There are ways to measure affluence and poverty regardless of cost of living and inflation. And please spare me the comparisons between the poor in the US and the poor in the Global South (Third World to those of you who like making other distinctions between fellow humans that actually dehumanize). I’ve seen too many corrugated roofs in Arkansas and Louisiana (all before Katrina), too many outhouses in rural Arkansas and Mississippi, too many families sleeping in the streets in San Francisco and New York, too many malnourished kids in Oklahoma and in DC to hear that “our poor are the richest poor people in the world” song-and-dance.
It’s simple really. Truly middle class people own a car and a home, or at least, have the option of doing both, with a steady income from a permanent job or from an established niche for work. If folks have one and rent an apartment or home, and aren’t really in a position to buy, they’re right on the borderline of the American middle class, but not quite there.
Of course, this definition does not mean that everything’s all right. Tens of millions of Americans, including yours truly, are struggling to pay car notes, student loans, mortgages and rent — not to mention credit card and other debt — and maintain a middle class or lower middle class lifestyle. Unfortunately, there are millions more who are working toward middle class, but aren’t quite there. They may say they’re middle class, but they’re really working-class or working poor.
Upper middle class or affluent Americans do more than own a house or a car. They own quality homes and quality cars, a Volvo or an Acura, maybe even a Lexus. They take at least one vacation a year with their families or friends, to other parts of the US, and on occasion, international trips. They eat at restaurants with their families at least as often as they eat a home-cooked meal. When shopping for groceries, sales are fine, as long as the sales aren’t on off-brand products like Faygo or Giant, Safeway or Krasdale. They have life insurance on every family member, 529 plans for their kids and contribute at least half as much to their 401K as their employer does in any given year (more than that if self-employed).
I’m certainly not arguing that the lives of the upper middle class or affluent or sub-rich are like being on Real Housewives or Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Yet so many in our public discourse make their lives now and times growing up sound humble, as if they grew up like me or others I’ve known over the past thirty years. People like Bill Cosby, Bill Gates or Bill O’Reilly, Dinesh D’Souza or Rush Limbaugh. It’s well beyond dishonest. It’s disgusting, and it helps to perpetuate the myth that the only reason all of us aren’t affluent is due only to our lack of hard work.
As the richest country on Earth — for the time being, at least — we’ve never reconciled our democratic ideals with our capitalistic obsessions. What helps maintain some sense of order, though, is our silence and quiet, desperate acquiescence to ever-increasing economic divisions in a country full of allegedly middle class people. As a song from Enigma goes, however, we should “question the absurd” here, as “silence must be heard.”