The Difficulty Of Defining What 'Middle Class' Is

NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Sherry Linkon, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, about the difficulty of defining what "middle class" is today.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

We asked people around the country about their income, and whether they think of themselves as middle-class. Here's what we heard.

M: I'm a painting contractor. I would say that I probably make $100,000 a year. I consider myself middle-class.

M: I work for Healthy Montana Kids. My income level is $25,000 a year. It's middle-class.

M: I help run a high-tech robotics company. Actual salary, 70,000. I consider myself to be in the middle-class.

M: I am a hospice care provider, and I make about 30 to 40,000 a year - erratically.

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M: I consider myself middle-class.

SIEGEL: Karen Falon of Hudson, Massachusetts; Steve Dickerson of Atlanta; Joan Abramson of Helena, Montana; and Dan Frost from Concord, Massachusetts, illustrate that being middle-class is one condition that covers a multitude of Americans.

SIEGEL: being middle-class.

And joining me is Sherry Linkon of Youngstown State University, where she is co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies.

Welcome to the program.

P: Hi. It's nice to be here.

SIEGEL: Is it fair to say that a lot of Americans who say they are middle-class could equally well be described as working class?

P: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I think that we define middle-class in a couple of different ways. We do it, in part, by income. That can include all kinds of people, as the folks you interviewed suggest. But if you also include things like college education, the status of people's jobs, and their sense of whether or not they've achieved the American Dream and whether that's possible, then we have to think about it a little bit differently.

You know, most of the time, when we ask people what class they are - are you upper-class, middle-class or lower class - with that kind of option, almost everybody chooses middle-class. But when you give them four options - upper, middle, working and lower - people split about half and half.

What that suggests is that we do, in fact, have both kinds of categories within that income middle.

SIEGEL: As we heard in Jennifer Ludden's report, though, Jada Irwin speaks of her middle-class parents who said that not going to college was not an option. They didn't have the money set aside to cover her college education. But the emphasis on going to college, that would be a non-income bracket definition of the middle-class, actually.

P: Absolutely. Both the idea that you should go to college, and then the college degree, is one of the key things that we say defines people as middle-class.

If you think historically, for generations, working-class people didn't go to college - not because they didn't have high ambitions and want to have good lives, but because they didn't have to. More and more, that's not the case.

I had a conversation with a student here a few years ago about what class she belonged to. And she insisted she was middle-class. I said, well, what do you make? I make $30,000 a year. I work three jobs. Part of it was about, I need to make that amount of money. Part of it was about, look, I'm going to college; that makes me middle-class.

SIEGEL: There was a phrase we also heard in Jennifer Ludden's story that is akin to the notion of being middle-class: the American Dream. The American Dream, which always has had to do, to some extent, with education, to some extent with homeownership, with having a job all the time, seems to be more middle class than working class - or not?

P: I think the access to what we might call the classic version of the American Dream - which means not only having that steady job but having a job in which you feel you have some respect and responsibility; earning enough money that you can buy a house, accumulate some savings - that American Dream is less and less accessible, and less and less secure.

So we have - really, two parts, even, of the middle-class right now. We've got the middle-class that is employed; they're feeling very anxious, but they're still there. We have another part that may have achieved the dream for a while, and is seeing it slip out of their fingers these days. And they're feeling some self- doubt and some question about, you know, what did I do wrong? I thought I made all the right choices - because that, too, is part of the American Dream.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Linkon, thank you very much for talking with us.

P: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Sherry Linkon, who is co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio.

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