The Middle Class Myth

The Misnomers and Magic of Wealth

Thomas Jefferson was the U.S. Secretary of State during French Revolution, and witnessed the conditions that led to that revolt. Editor in Chief DREW GOWING examines why a thriving middle class is critical to a constitutional democracy.

The claim that the U.S. is a middle class country originally distinguished white farmers from the rural and urban poor, most notably from nonwhites. Thomas Jefferson envisioned his ideal nation as the land of hard-working property owners, free from Europe’s aristocratic class system. But Revolutionary War generals were not paid in cash, but in “tracks” consisting of 1000 acres of land thus replicating the very class system Jefferson tried to avoid. Today, supervisors, middle managers, doctors and lawyers can all legitimately claim an intermediate status somewhere between Wealth Owners—and what Marx referred to as Wealth Creators. But the numbers reveal that the upper Middle Class of approximately 14M—even at the center of the world’s commercial and corporate empire—pales before a Working Class of more than 200M. The Department of Labor reveals an even a starker contrast: More then 95% of Americans are merely “nonsupervisory employees.”

Only 3% of Americans earn $250K or more
Department of the Treasury

American colleges were designed to train America’s managers, and through the 20th century affirmed class background. Even today, less than 10% of college graduates are from lower-income families, and for those students managing to achieve it, the degree has diminished in importance as any guarantee of status. In short, despite a certain degree of social mobility, the upper classes largely replicate themselves. During recent times the millions of new jobs at the lower end of the economy have provided poor wages and no security, while the top few percent of Americans have taken so much of the expanding pie that for the rest of us the improvements in the conditions of life have come at the cost of longer hours, increased indebtedness, or both. Politicians continue to argue about abolishing inheritance taxes, while close to half the population can expect to leave no inheritance whatever.

The vast power shift in the last decade, and the reform impulses within the organized labor movements around the world, signals the endgame of globalization. But the recent patterns of immigration, and what their continuation suggests for working class life, may mean an interesting endnote to the very European style Class System Jefferson feared. While the Socialist influence has been badly limited by American’s sense of imperial entitlement, we are nevertheless merely servants below stairs at Downton Abbey. Indeed, America’s Middle Class is being remade before our eyes. It’s newest members are the empire’s former victims; who’ve come with memories of solidarity, suffering, and an eye single to the glory of cornfields, Tapas Restaurants, and illusions of the America dream.


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