Labor and U.S. Politics

Middle Class means Working Class

By Margaret Kimberley

Americans love to think of themselves as middle class. For decades, polls have shown that 90 percent of the population will refer to themselves with this meaningless phrase. We know of course that there are millions of poor working people in this country, but if anyone asks how they define themselves, the words poor or
working will not appear in their self-identification.

The term middle class should disappear from our lexicon, and the sooner the better. Regardless of educational attainment, income, or assets, anyone who depends on a paycheck to maintain their lifestyle is a worker. A white collar, college educated worker who makes six figures is still a worker. If that high income disappears, that individual is in very deep trouble. The sooner Americans begin thinking of themselves that way, the better off they will be.

Working people are under attack in this country in ways that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. The American mania for middle class aspiration has helped to make this dire circumstance possible, and will cause workers to feel enmity with other workers when they should feel a sense of common cause.

Republicans and Democrats have declared war on those few workers fortunate enough to be unionized. As the great recession enters its fourth year, cities and states are drowning in a sea of red ink. Governors, mayors and state legislators appear to be of one accord on the remedy. Public employees must either lose their jobs altogether, lose pensions and benefits, or lose their union protections. As a result of seeing themselves as middle class and not as working people, workers in the private sector who are themselves vulnerable, applaud the effort to race to the bottom, instead of fighting against it.

Politicians use their anti-union credentials to get elected. Only uninformed and deluded Americans would be supportive of efforts to decimate the lives of the last group of people who have a small measure of job stability.

Income inequality is growing at a rapid rate, but there are very few elected officials who are willing to propose taxing the richest individuals in the country as a solution to fiscal insolvency. A recent report highlights how distorted this inequality has become. In New York City, only one percent of that city’s population now has 44 percent of its income. Yet newly inaugurated governor Andrew Cuomo has no plans to help the state’s budget by taxing this group whose wealth grows exponentially.

New York City is one of the world capitals of finance capital, so it isn’t surprising that the hedge fund chieftains and other financial services industry leaders make their home there. It is appalling that they are considered untouchable, despite the fact that in 1980, the top one percent of New Yorkers had just 12 percent of the city’s total income. This galloping transfer of wealth is not an issue in policy discussions because Americans don’t understand that the inequality is a result of their interests being crushed. Instead, the misinformed so-called middle-class applaud efforts to put everyone under the heel of class warfare perpetrated by people at the top.

This lack of class-consciousness has always been a hindrance to Americans’ ability to maintain and keep a decent standard of living. Racism is in large part to blame. If white people see that their whiteness is the path to success, and it is, they are not likely to see themselves as people in need of political actions taken on their behalf. Now that whiteness counts for less and less, the old habit still dies hard, and white Americans will put people in office who openly declare themselves as the enemy.

In truth, the words middle-class have taken on the meaning of whiteness, worthiness and acceptability. They are devoid of any political meaning, and confuse an already confused people about where their interests lie. When next you read that the middle class are suffering, or are on the verge of extinction or are being ignored by politicians, replace the words with working class. That act will begin new discussion of how the political system can begin to make decisions which will improve the lives of working people, and not only the rich who are getting richer.

Black Agenda Report, January 25, 2011