The Elusive Middle Class—A Hodgepodge of Values
Life + Money

The Elusive Middle Class—A Hodgepodge of Values

This is the second piece in a series examining the so-called middle class in America today — an elusive group that’s dominating political rhetoric. But if no one can identify the middle class by income , values or lifestyle, why are government policies being designed for an illusion?

With every political campaign comes a new list of monikers describing the same elusive group of Americans — the middle class. From Richard Nixon (the silent majority) to Barack Obama (main street) presidential rhetoric has included “family values,” “soccer moms,” the “kitchen table” and even “Joe the Plumber,” to appeal to voters’ sentimental idea of what it means to be a run-of-the-mill, and middle-of-the-road, American. 

So what are the middle class values that politicians seem so bent on honoring?

The middle class is “both a social and an economic construct,” according to a 2008 Pew report. And while even the economic makeup is impossible to pin down, the social — or values — element is even more nebulous. The classic idea is that there’s a dominant group of voters who all share similar values; a Norman Rockwell world where families eat meals together, worship together, work hard and study even harder, are civil and respectful, play by the rules — and earn neither too much or too little.

Such impressions seem quaint in today’s America, where 87 percent of high school students admit to cheating; half of all college students don’t graduate; two of every five babies were born to single mothers in 2008; the U.S. ranks 23rd or 24th on standardized tests, well below China, Korea, Poland and Estonia; and income inequality is at its highest point since the Gilded Age.

And in today’s fragmented America, it’s hard to imagine a single set of values holding any demographic together. “You can tailor your cultural preferences to your lifestyle,” says Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College and author of One Nation, After All: What Middle-Class Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism… “So if there is a group of people that share common values, they can get those reinforced by a more fragmented culture.” Members of the Tulsa Anarchists on, or the Boise Raw Food Meet Up Group on Facebook, could surely relate. Writing about class in 2005, Wolfe said, “[W]e have as many as there are yogurts.” Today, he says, this has become even truer.

In spite of our fractured culture, is it possible to pinpoint a distinguishing set of middle class values? “All our hazy memories of the 1950s and 1960s … seem much less relevant now,” says Jacob Hacker, author of Winner-Take-All Politics and a professor of political science at Yale University. In the popular imagination, when we think of middle class, we think of a strong nuclear family of four or five — hardworking, churchgoing, rule-following. But when you dig deeper into these classic elements, do they hold up?

Family bonds seem like a logical starting point in any examination of the middle class — and politicians apparently agree, as they perpetually invoke the middle class family. But who exactly are they pandering to?

Not the married couple with two kids. For centuries, marriage has been the foundation upon which the family is built. No more: In 1960, 72 percent of American adults were married. In 2008, that number dropped to barely half — 52 percent. Today, college graduates tie the knot more frequently than any other demographic group, but even among that group, marriage is declining according to the Pew Report, “The Decline of Families and Rise of New Families.”

One reason: Marriage is not considered a prerequisite to forming a family. Eighty percent of Americans call an unmarried couple with a child a family, and 63 percent agree that a homosexual couple with a child is a family. Eighty-six percent of Americans say a single parent and a child constitute a family, which is particularly relevant for the 41 percent of American children now born to single mothers. “A child born to a single mother used to be the definition of what middle class people didn’t do, but now it’s become as common in the middle class as everywhere else,” says Wolfe. 

Still, while single-parenthood does not hold the stigma it once did, the fact remains that children living with just a mother are far more likely to be or become poor than children in two-parent families.  This has caused them to seek alternative family arrangements, such as living with unmarried partners, or with other relatives. It is a dramatic shift in child-rearing that will have a profound effect on future generations.

Also, 18 percent of American women do not have children by the end of their childbearing years, an 8 percent increase over the past 30 years, and a trend that suggests that for a substantial segment of the population, “family” may take on a still more unconventional meaning.

Hard work has long been an accepted tenet of middle class life. But working life has changed dramatically in the past few decades. Americans have long been somewhat addicted to their careers; according to United Nations numbers, 86 percent of American men and 67 percent of women work more than 40 hours per week. And Americans work more than citizens of any other advanced nation.

On the other hand, a large portion of the population puts a premium on leisure time — 68 percent named it a top priority in a 2008 Pew poll, suggesting a continuing struggle to strike a satisfactory work-life balance.

And the demographics of the workforce have entered an unprecedented phase. Now that women constitute more than half of American workers, the traditional division of labor both outside and within the home no longer holds, and it has forced a realignment of values that hasn’t yet fallen into place. That it is changing our work culture is irrefutable; how exactly it will ultimately change it is still in question.

In addition, work is a far more malleable concept today than it once was. “The job market has changed,” says Hacker. “[It] has become much more uncertain and risky, and particularly, job security is not part of the promise that employers make. And so it’s sort of a free agent job market.”

All of this points to the American approach to work undergoing a significant shift, and the dust has not yet settled to reveal a “standard” work ethic.

The United States is far more religious as a whole than other advanced countries — 65 percent of Americans say religion is an important part of their daily life, as opposed to 27 percent in the UK, 30 percent in France and 24 percent in Japan. But within our population, it’s hard to correlate religion with middle class values. For those earning $35,000-$100,000 annually, 37.6 percent attend church once per week, while about two-thirds believe that God exists.

More compelling, people with more income, pray less: Over 62 percent of those with household incomes under $20,000 pray at least once a day, while in the $100,000-plus income category, that number is only 37.9 percent. Belief in God also decreases as income increases. Like marriage, then, religion can be a choice born of economic circumstances.

When President Obama introduced his middle class agenda last January, he described the doctrine of the middle class as follows: “If you work hard and live up to your responsibilities, you can get ahead — and enjoy some of the basic guarantees in life.” Hardworking, responsible people are de facto middle class? Can a responsible, hardworking person be upper class? Lower class? And what exactly are those responsibilities? Most experts say that they include some combination of providing for one’s family, contributing to one’s community, and making sure your kids have opportunities for a prosperous future.

But what happens when people begin to realize that living up to one’s responsibilities doesn’t result in the promised middle class dream? “The definition of the middle class was always, your kids would do better than you. But that’s not true anymore, and people know it,” says Wolfe. Our current epidemic of long-term unemployment and lowered salary and benefit expectations have only exacerbated this perception.

“[F]or many people who feel like they’ve played by the rules, they’ve gotten the education, it’s not as if they’re hurtling into the stratosphere,” says Hacker. “The guarantees of the American Dream have been broken.”

Which means that Americans in the middle of the spectrum may not be feeling compelled to hold up their end of the bargain anymore. Says Wolfe: “I always believed there was such a thing as a distinct set of middle class values, but I’m not sure it’s going to survive in this economy.”