We hear a lot of political talk these days about an American “middle class.” Both party operatives seem to pander to this large voting bloc, presuming small (and less important) low- and upper-classes. A recent Charlotte Observer article by editorialist Taylor Batten refers to a Pew Research Center report indicating that the “American middle class is smaller, poorer and more pessimistic than it has been in a long time.” Mr. Batten identifies this group as a “cornerstone of America’s economic health.” The Pew definition of middle class: “a household that makes between 67 percent and 200 percent of the national median income.”(link)
Curious about the history of this term, I went to the late William Safire’s “Political Dictionary.” In the 1972 edition Mr. Safire entered “Middle America.” These people were, according to Safir’s definition, “the payers of most of the taxes, the holders of most of the values, the electors of most of the candidates” in America; explaining why the strong political interest—although this definition may not be accurate 40 years later.
Safir credits the term to columnist Joseph Kraft in a 1968 article. Mr. Kraft told Safir he had been thinking about it two years earlier and that a 1967 Labor Department study of living costs for people in major cities with incomes of $7,000 to $10,000 stimulated his focus on this group. The report showed that “their requirements were outrunning their earnings.” These folks, Kraft said, were “ordinary Americans, middle-class Americans, Americans who were not young or poor or black and that kind of thing.”
At that time Middle Americans had moved up from poverty to just under affluence, buying houses, using their own private transportation and switching from “beer to whiskey.” Kraft restricted the term to an economic concept. Safir wrote that it also showed “the conflict between middle class and the classes above and below”—now energized by political leftists.
“Class Warfare” has entered the political lexicon since Safir wrote his dictionary (the term doesn’t appear in his 1972 edition). Politicians and political activists on the left desperately try to invigorate envy and hatred toward upper-class people with higher earnings and greater accumulations of wealth. False claims are flung at the political wall hoping some will stick.
One charges that when some people gain wealth, others lose it; another that wealth is a fixed-size “pie”—larger pieces served to some result in smaller portions available to others. But these ideas are absurd. Wealth is created by using labor, capital and resources to provide for market demands. Investments increase productivity and all classes of people benefit.
Of course, economic conditions change; there is no static economic condition. Depressions, recessions, and economic dips as well as good times, bubbles and “roaring” economies describe the ups and downs of our capitalist system. Until recently, because of upward mobility, social stability and the optimism of Americans, we’ve weathered financial storms and moved on to improve our conditions—believing that each generation will do better than the last. Few people now believe that; we’re not optimistic about the future. Pew research confirms this.
Household income for the middle class has dropped. Low class incomes remain about the same and upper class income has increased. Loss of home values and jobs explains the plight of the middle class. Upper class people have smaller percentages of their income invested in their homes and they know how to preserve the wealth they have. Low class people do just fine because wealth is distributed to them from government and many with ability and initiative will move up to middle class status.
Despite all the claims I don’t think government spending and programs can “fix” our economy. When government sucks more out of the economy it makes conditions worse. And as it regulates and controls it stymies investments by risk takers that create growth and wealth.
Americans in the middle, rich and even the “poor,” have done well because we once lived in a country with few barriers to personal achievement and success. Statists now largely in control of the federal government plan to change that. They’ve got a powerful hand on the throat of the American spirit. It remains to be seen whether they can snuff it out. My bet is on most Americans in all economic classes to resist and revive that spirit.
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