Are you middle class? Upper middle class, maybe? Do you think you and your family are the people being talked about when politicians debate solutions for the middle class and its problems?
It’s a premise rooted in the very heart of the American project: that everyone is or can be middle class. So when Obama uses the presidential bully pulpit—starting but not ending with the State of the Union—to focus the nation on the plight of the middle class, he knows the theme will resonate, big time.
But who exactly is he talking about? It was hard to tell from the speech. Sprinkled among the paragraphs about the middle class, there were also references to “working families.” If you dig a little deeper into the policies proposed in the address, it turns out several are designed for people with low to moderate incomes. But when Obama went on the road to elaborate on his proposals and presumably meet some middle-class Americans, he ended up in a café in Baltimore that serves vegan sandwiches and charges almost five dollars for a chai latte—not exactly working-family fare.
The SOTU poster couple—Rebekah Erler, who sat in the gallery with Michelle Obama, and her husband Ben—was even more ambiguous. The president made it sound as if they might be working class: Ben was in the construction business before he lost his job, Rebekah attended community college. But it turns out the speech glossed over a lot about the Erlers, and not just that Rebekah had worked as a volunteer for Patty Murray, the Democratic senator from Washington. She also has a four-year college degree—putting her squarely in the solid middle class, not the lower or precarious middle where Obama seemed to want to situate her.
There are several possible explanations for the president’s loose language. It’s hard to believe it’s just carelessness, or ignorance. He and his speechwriters can’t live such sheltered lives that they really don’t know the difference between college-educated professionals and blue-collar workers. So perhaps the vagueness is a political calculation. Maybe Obama is deliberately using the catch-all term middle class to create a sense of solidarity and spur concern for people at risk of slipping out of the middle into what once might have been called the working poor. Sounds well-intentioned. But is it really helpful? Surely the worst thing we could do for this group is to fail to see them for who they are and misdiagnose their problems. That does no service to working families—and it obscures the choices we face as a nation.
The truth about class in America is complex and hard to get at. Partly, we just don’t like to talk about class. It’s something we feel our ancestors left behind, and happily so, in the old, unequal, stratified societies they left to come to America. When we finally do get to the conversation, it’s often muddy and misleading. Economists, sociologists, and public opinion all use different definitions and different yardsticks. Is the key variable income, education, occupation—or is what really matters what you think you are? Many studies rely solely on self-identification. And it’s easy to fall back on the view Obama tapped in his speech: that except for small, distinct strata at the top and the bottom—the very rich and the chronic poor—we’re all pretty similar in aspirations and values.
The data tell a different story. Economists divide American households into five income brackets, or quintiles, each containing exactly one-fifth of the population. In 2013, the lowest fifth earned less than $20,900, the top fifth more than $105,900. A catch-all definition like Obama’s puts everyone in between in the middle class. But it’s hard to view that as a meaningful category—an earnings gap that wide makes for differences in the kind, not just the degree, of opportunities open to you and your family. Using all five tiers allows social scientists to distinguish between an upper-middle, a lower-middle and a truly middle category: households making roughly $40,000 to $60,000 in 2013.
Public opinion falls somewhere in between the nuanced and unnuanced views. Perhaps, in a loose sense, all Americans consider themselves middle class. But when put on the spot by pollsters, people can and do make distinctions. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, some 55 percent of Americans see themselves in the middle or upper-middle class, while roughly a third call themselves working class and 10 percent put themselves in the bottom tier. Self-identification shifts with the business cycle. But unlike Obama, most Americans distinguish between the middle class, the very poor, and a somewhat shadowy group in between.