The harrowing economic collapse of the first decade of 2000 didn’t just change Americans — it changed the vocabulary of Americans. More precisely, it changed the vocabulary of those in political running, who have steered clear of the term “middle class.”
Economists warned for years that the safety net of the “middle class” was disappearing and that it was an ambiguous term that brought to mind people who worked hard, didn’t have hundreds of thousands in the bank, but had some money to fall back on in a crisis, those who had white picket fences and two kids and a dog and went on vacation every summer and had enough food to eat, plus plenty to share with family and friends on holidays. But that reality has quickly dissipated; what is left in its wake has yet to be named an accurate descriptor. The new majority of Americans might own a home, but many don’t; they don’t have the safety net of a savings account, their jobs have been downsized, and there might not be a vacation this year. Who are these people? Are they “the poor”? Surely an “Everyday American” isn’t poor? Or are they?
As the “middle class” has decreased in size, a few managed to squeeze up into the higher wage earners, the upper class. But the majority of Americans have left sociologists and now politicians — not to mention the rest of us — trying to figure out who we are. If we’re lower class, is there yet a lower class? These are some very difficult questions that politicians on the campaign trail to need not only address, but determine a strategy for bringing back that “middle class” — so that it can be descriptive of “everyday American” in a way it currently is not.
Hillary Clinton calls them “everyday Americans“, but Scott Walker prefers “hardworking taxpayers.” Bernie Sanders talks about “ordinary Americans.” Rand Paul has asserted that he speaks for “people who work for the people who own businesses.” Whatever they are called, politicians are carefully sidestepping the “middle class term” as though it is no longer. Perhaps because that’s true.
Sarah Elwood, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, asserts that it’s true: the middle class, as it was previously defined, is gone.
“The cultural consensus around what it means to be “middle class” — and in that has very much been part of the national identity in the United States — is beginning to shift.”
Rising costs of the major things Americans need — housing, medical care, transportation — mean many families whose incomes fall in the median of the national distribution can no longer afford the fringe benefits of what was once associated with a middle class lifestyle. That has made the term, political scientists say, lose its meaning; nobody knows what it is anymore. That will make for a very interesting presidential race — one that is basically dedicated to the “haves” and the “have nots.” Dr, Elwood said nobody can relate to what it means to be middle class anymore.
“We have no collective language for talking about that condition.”
[photo by nationofchange.org]