You consider your family:
a. Upper class
b. Middle class
c. Lower class
Every time I encounter a question like the one above, I’m stupefied. The distinction between classes is so ambiguous and my experiences so unquantifiable that I never quite know how to answer.
Like 47 percent of the U.S. population, I considered my family solidly “middle class” for most of my adolescent life — I hadn’t realized there are actually four distinct middle classes. I grew up in a small farm town that my dad had never left and that my mom had moved to from the outskirts of Jackson County. For the first 12 years of my life, my dad owned and operated a sheet metal fabrication business on the edge of the village limits. After marrying my dad, my mom worked as the shop secretary. It was the 1990s and the manufacturing industry was booming.
In 1992, my parents bought a one-bathroom, two-bedroom, three-story house on Main Street in Parma, Mich., for about $30,000. By 1996, my parents had four kids, a house double its original size and a successful industry-centered business.
During my early elementary years, my family had a weekly housekeeper, two lots we rented at a campground an hour away, a large-sized boat (paid for in cash) and three gas-guzzling vehicles. Presents littered our backroom Christmas morning and our birthdays were lavishly celebrated.
Though I never asked my parents about what their annual income was during the first years of my life, I know they made more than the people we acquainted ourselves with. My sister, brothers and I reminisce on this period of our lives as the glory days: in my naive, childish perception, we were Parma’s version of “upper class.” But really, it was the beginning of the end.
Less than 10 years later, a combination of mental illnesses, addiction, financial irresponsibility, ignorance and systematic influences led to a drastic change in our lives.
By 2006, my parents struggled to put food on our table. My dad lost his fabrication shop and was consumed by debt. Both my dad and my youngest brother, separately, spent a week in the hospital, resulting in astronomical medical bills. The campground we had once vacationed at nearly every weekend held our camper as collateral for the money my parents owed. Child Protective Services visited our house claiming our toilets didn’t work and that my parents had no food to feed us.
My mother dragged my brothers and me along as she picked up random custodial jobs in the area: at the Vietnam veteran’s residence in the trailer park down the street; at the giant Methodist church in the town north of ours; at the fur-covered, nearly condemned trailer of the angry old man with shingles. Meanwhile, our own house looked like an animal shelter littered with remnants of junk food. The bank sent several foreclosure notices. My dad borrowed money to keep our home.
However, in the second half of 2008, our economic status shifted once again — this time for the better.
My mom secured a stable job (that she still has to this day) and my dad controlled his drinking enough to hold a credible reputation with his employer. My parents were constantly fighting, but our family was able to retain some normalcy. Things seemed OK for the time being.
When I first applied to FAFSA during my senior year of high school in 2011, according to the numbers, my family was probably considered upper-middle class. Though physically separated, my parents were not legally separated, and so their combined income was about $100,000 — well above Michigan’s current median household income of $49,847. During my first semester of college, my family was expected to contribute over $4,000 to my education, an amount that’s easily attainable for most higher-income families.
Yet, two days before moving into my dormitory, my dad was permanently “laid off” from his job of five years. My 21-year-old sister and her newly wedded husband were struggling to support their two children. My youngest brother was constantly in legal trouble. I was the only one in my family who wanted to go to college; putting aside money for my education when we lived day by day was a joke.
Since then, my family’s economic struggles have been an uphill battle. In the 10 semesters I have been enrolled at the University of Michigan, I have yet to pay the remaining balance on my account — my expected family contribution — on time. Each semester, I become more and more anxious, constantly calling my mom as the end of the semester approaches. In the second semester of my sophomore year, my mom couldn’t afford the $2,000 we still owed. I took out a personal loan through our local credit union and made monthly payments for two years until it was paid off.
Today, I don’t know what to call myself.
My dad works as a welder at a car-parts factory. My stepmom is a third-shift stocker at Meijer. Their combined income is part of the “working middle-class.”
My mom still works at the company she applied to in 2008. Her salary has only increased as the years have passed. Last year, she married my now-stepdad, who works in a top managerial position in his industry. Combined, they make more than 90 percent of what most U.S. households earn: definitely upper class.
For the past three years — before my stepmom started working again and before ever meeting my stepdad — I have worked more than 30 hours per week to support myself. I pay for everything except my vehicle (the aforementioned loan was meant for a car, so after the semester was paid for, my mom bought me one). I’m incredibly lucky to have parents who are willing to try to help me when I need it.
I know what it’s like to be rich, but I didn’t grow up wealthy. I know what it’s like to be poor, but I didn’t grow up in poverty. I don’t know what socioeconomic class I’m supposed to consider myself anymore, but there is one thing I do know: There are nuances in the numbers.
Aarica Marsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.