Saturday, May 05, 2007

We're Not All Middle Class After All

Prompted by my recent post about Democratic economic policies, Mary-Jo and I were talking over dinner about Americans' class identification. I confidently asserted that the vast majority of people in this country describe themselves as middle class, regardless of their actual income or other indicators of status. I may even have bandied about the phrase "ninety percent."

Well, as sometimes happens when I confidently assert things, it turns out that I wasn't quite right.

A bit of web-based research reveals that lots of people believe that almost all Americans consider themselves middle class. For example, in this NPR story, Washington bureau chief Jon Dimsdale asserts, "By a vast majority, Americans claim to be middle class. Eighty percent in most polls."

Yet when I searched for polls supporting Dimsdale's statement, I couldn't find them. Instead, I found this poll from CBS News:
When asked to describe their social class, 42% of Americans call themselves middle class.


Lower class 7%
Working class 36
Middle class 42
Upper middle class 13
Upper class 2
I find it surprising and fascinating that so many Americans describe themselves as "working class." It seems to me that I haven't run into many people who do--at least, not since I was a kid in Brooklyn in the sixties. (I remember asking my dad, who was a letter carrier, what class we were, and him responding, "Working class, I guess.") To me, the term has a distinctly down-market feel--as though a person might feel slightly insulted if I were to apply it to him or her. It certainly isn't the term of choice used by politicians to describe their constituents or the voters they are wooing--that's "middle class," by a landslide. But obviously not everyone considers "working class" to be pejorative; I can't imagine 36 percent of people describing themselves by a term they found insulting.

This is an interesting and probably important nuance that Democrats should be thinking about in framing their discussion of economic issues. The fact that a sizeable chunk of Americans are happy to identify themselves as "working class" perhaps suggests that the constituency for a John Edwards-style populist appeal based on class solidarity may be greater than an affluent suburbanite like me might assume.

However, I don't think it invalidates the general point I made in my earliest post. There aren't very many people (and even fewer voters) who identify themselves as "poor," which suggests to me that a policy presentation that leans too heavily on the notion of alleviating poverty would probably face an uphill battle among the electorate.

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