I’ve never seen myself as middle class. I’m sure that for those of you who read my blog every week, this is about as much a surprise as my constant linking of my posts to my Boy At The Window manuscript. Almost every person I’ve ever met, regardless of income — and especially as an adult — has seen themselves as middle class. This despite the growing gap between the affluent and the rest of us in the past couple of decades. This middle-class delusion defines how our nation’s economic crises affect each and every one of us, and not for the better.
If someone had asked me what my career and financial goals were in 1987, I would’ve said that I wanted to be a computer programmer making at least $25,000 a year. That’s it. No thought of retirement or health care coverage or investing in the stock market. I certainly didn’t care about a truly middle class income or a living wage. Besides having the naivete of a 17-year-old, welfare-poor Black male, my thinking was based somewhat in realism. A standard programmer job with a bachelor’s degree and limited work experience was between $25,000 and $40,000 a year back then. Having a $25,000 per annum income in most parts of the U.S. as a single person would’ve given me middle class status. After all, I spent my teenage years as one of six kids living in a household with an annual income of $16,600. $25,000 might as well have been $200,000 given what I lived with prior to college. Thinking about benefits, investments and
retirement? I might’ve worried about that when I turned 30, assuming that I would make it into
my 30s at all.
So much has changed about my understanding of class and money since the days before the Wall Street crash in October 1987. Including the distance between my and our perceptions of middle class status and the reality of middle class living in the U.S. For starters, even mediocre computer technicians make between $35,000 and $60,000 a year without a degree, and web
designers $25,000 per contract. A job paying $25,000 in most of the country qualifies someone
with a family as working poor and in need of some form of public assistance. In some parts of the
country, including where I live—the Washington, DC metro area—a $50,000-a-year income is
hardly middle class at all. I made nearly $80,000 last year, yet struggled to pay down my student loans and credit card debt. Face it, folks. Middle class isn’t we think it is anymore.
With the current mortgage/credit/debt/financial crises unfolding before us, it’s time to
recognize that most of us who see ourselves as middle class are there because of debt. My income from last year didn’t keep up with my level of debt. Student loans, credit cards, and a car note, about $95,000 in total debt. I would’ve needed an income of at least that much last year in order to successfully service and reduce my personal debt. But to truly be middle class, my income would’ve needed to be at least $115,000, in order to significantly reduce debt, build up savings and have a disposable income not dependent on lines or credit or charge cards. Of course, living in the DC area, my levels of income and debt were probably typical. Many of us, though, have my level of debt and more—and with less income—living in places like Huntsville, Alabama, Des Moines, Iowa, and Spokane, Washington.
Between popular culture and the press, the commercials, videos and ads, we have this impression that anyone making between $20,000 and $1 million a year should see themselves as middle class. Anyone with a job is middle class by this all-encompassing definition. By any realistic standard, a family would need an income of between $150,000 and $200,000 a year to live a middle-class lifestyle with relatively little debt, whether living in Bradley, Arkansas or on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Not good news for most of us.
This is more than a perception problem. It’s a recipe for economic and social disaster. One that cannot be remedied with an economic contact lens like making more credit available. Most of us need radical Lasik surgery to correct our debt-ridden middle class visions. We must restore
balance to our incomes and debts before we are all too blind to see our way into a middle-class
quality of life.