Talking about class


by Eleanor Arnason, 5/29/08 • I think most of the problem [in talking about “the working class”] is the huge inability of Americans to think about class. Working people are not always factory workers. They are not always poorly educated. One of the big lies that we are told now is that people do badly because they are don’t have enough education. Tell that to an adjunct professor with a PhD, who is holding three different jobs with no benefits and no security.

A panel at Wiscon (the Wisconsin science fiction convention) led Eleanor Arnason to musing, in her blog, about class. “All of the posts below are mulling and speculating,” Arnason writes. “I don’t mean them to be definitive. I am trying to get some sense of why this topic is so difficult to talk about.” This blog post is a series of excerpts from her blog.

I think the cleanest definition is the 19th century one: members of the working class do not own the means of production. Lacking these, they must sell their labor to the people who do own the factories, offices and colleges. Of course, this definition means that many people who think they are middle class and professional are mere working stiffs.

This structural definition does not address cultural differences among the classes. An adjunct professor may experience the same kind of power relationships as a factory worker, but she may have many cultural differences. How important are these differences? Are they more important than the difference between a Somalian hotel worker and a Hispanic roofer? Maybe yes and maybe no.

The Rich

The class structure we recognize in this country is the poor, the middle class and the rich.

The census defines poverty as having a household income of less than a certain amount: $10,787 for a single person and $21,386 for a family of four. I can’t find a definition for rich.

The median household income is $44,389. Half of American households make less. This amount tells us nothing about how many people in the household are working. Many households have two adults working and maybe some kids as well.

The top 5% of the population makes a household income of $157,176 or more.

None of this tells us where richness begins. I would say it begins well above $157,000. A household making $157,000 can easily be destroyed by illness. You aren’t rich, if you can lose everything because of a not very major illness.

Until the housing bubble began to deflate, many houses cost $400,000 and up — not opulent houses, either, just houses in areas where the bubble was especially bubbly.

Tuition at a private college can now run $40,000 a year.

You aren’t rich if you have to strain to buy a house or send your kids to college.

The Poor

I don’t find the term “poor” very useful, unless you define it very narrowly.

My mother, who was a social worker in the Great Depression and in New York in the 1960s, said, “The trouble with the poor is they have no money. All other problems are secondary.”

But we tend to describe the poor as having certain traits, which are inherent. In one way or another, the poor have made themselves poor. They are, we think, badly educated, badly trained, with bad habits and messed up lives. Often, we think, they are lazy or criminal and do not work.

In fact, many poor people work and work hard. However, they are badly paid, and that is what makes them poor. It is a problem which can be solved with unions and a higher minimum wage.

Many poor people also have chronic health problems, which makes it difficult for them to find good jobs or any job, especially in a weak economy, which is what we have.

There is no clear line between them and working people who are slightly better off. A bad break, and someone who is “lower middle class” will suddenly become poor. The guys who live under bridges and in caves along the Mississippi are pretty much all blue collar guys, who have hit a bad patch. They do day labor. They collect cans and sell them. They are not living off any kind of welfare. The pathologies they have are things like post traumatic stress syndrome, closed head injuries and the anxiety and depression that develop when you live outside.

The Middle Class

Now we come to a huge group, everything between the poor and rich, assuming that we keep the term “poor.” What is this gigantic object, the middle class?

It is service workers, office workers, factory workers, technical workers, skilled trade workers, professional workers, small business people, many artists. You could argue that it’s everyone who has to work (the truly rich can live on investments, I would argue) and who makes more than $25,000 a year for a household.

Is a term this large useful? How much do these people share in common?

The old middle class, the one called the petit bourgeoisie in the 19th century, was made up of shopkeepers and self-employed professionals. They owned their own tools and work space and might employ a few helpers. Mostly they worked for themselves, as did family farmers. Jefferson wanted to build his republic on these people.

Some of this middle class remains. There are still plenty of shops and small businesses. Some professionals work for themselves, as do some skilled tradesmen and women.

But many people who are grouped in our modern middle class work for big businesses. If they are middle class, they are a new kind of middle class: the doctors employed by HMOs, the lawyers in huge national and international firms.

So what is a doctor who works for an HMO? What are the people who keep modern colleges and universities going: the graduate assistants and the adjunct faculty? (To be fair, the clerical and maintenance staffs also keep schools going.) (How are the graduate assistants different from the clerks and janitors?)

So this is another slippery area. Just as the border between the poor and the middle class is fuzzy and permeable, so the various parts of the middle class fuzz into one another. People move back and forth between being employees and being self-employed. Income is not invariably connected to education: a union construction worker makes a more than a lot of professional people with advanced degrees. During the dot com boom, some tech workers became millionaires.

I would be inclined to argue that the old middle class, which actually did exist as a separate class in the 19th century, is mostly gone; and that a majority of working people are usually employees, but sometimes self-employed; and that there are cultural differences, which have to do with background and education, but that these do not necessarily have much to do with how you work, how much you make, how safe you are or how much control you have over your life.

This social class can’t really be called the middle class, because it’s no longer in the middle of anything. We can call it the working class, because it’s made up of people who have to earn their living; or we can call it the lower class, since it is below the rich. I am willing to go with either term.