Thursday, September 30, 2010

Middle Class Values

Less than five weeks until election day. The battle for the middle class vote is fully engaged. Forget for a moment where your political sentiments lie. Consider a more open-ended question—just who comprises the middle class these days?

Time was, middle class was mostly a statistical evaluation. It generally meant households with incomes ranging from $30,000 to $80,000. Given that today the poverty level for a family of four is $22,050, the $30K threshold might be a little low. Probably the same holds true for the top level as well.

In any case, purely statistical measurements do not suffice when assessing who is part of the middle class. Today it is more of a psychographic classification, reflecting not just income levels but also, among other things, education, aspirations, professional status, a family’s total mindset. To some, middle class life means enough income to allow a spouse to stay home with the children, or to get a new car every three to five years. Ethnicity is a factor as well. Asian Americans place a different level of importance on education than other groups. Hispanic Americans shop as multi-generational units. We have attached symbols to middle class living that heretofore might have been represented just as “the American dream”—home ownership. The housing crisis of the last few years has pretty much turned that dream into a nightmare for too many.

Back in 2002, married friends of ours living in Scarsdale (an upscale Westchester County, NY, community) decided to move to Manhattan. At their going away party, I walked into a conversation among several couples lamenting their paycheck to paycheck existence. As 2002 was the last time the country suffered through a recession prior to our current state of mismanaged economic affairs, it was not surprising to hear such talk. But it was disconcerting to hear their self-categorization as middle class. These, after all, were lawyers and stock brokers, doctors and accountants, real estate developers and corporate executives, couples whose annual household incomes easily topped a quarter of a million dollars a year, who lived in one of the country’s wealthiest areas, who drove the most expensive foreign cars, belonged to country clubs, took several vacations each year and sent their children to summer camps and private colleges. I suggested to this small gathering of grumblers they were not middle class, that they lived in a cocoon of privilege and their paycheck to paycheck lifestyles were the result of choices made, some good, some questionable, about their spending priorities. (Fear not, concerned reader—nobody punched me out. I remain friends with all of these “enlightened” complainers.)

But it is now 2010 and the debate is raging on the wisdom and morality of keeping or repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, those families earning more than $250,000 a year, the very people I chided for their middle class in-sensibilities. I’m not going to bang you over the head with my opinion about the tax rate. Rather, I present to you the contrasting views of Ben Stein and Linda McGibney as delivered these last two weeks on CBS Sunday Morning. You decide:

Ben Stein:

Linda McGibney: