My last column generated a lot of backlash online, and many of the comments were valid. I admit that the way I presented my argument was wrong and uninformed. It was entirely, unequivocally and undeniably the wrong way to go about explaining my ideas. I should not have used irrelevant and personal anecdotes about spending habits to try and stereotype socioeconomic classes. I should not have used my limited years of experience to describe an economic problem that has hundreds of facets and millions of stories.
When I wrote my last column, it was obvious that I didn’t understand the social and economic juxtapositions of the middle class. Although I don’t fall into what most (if not all) people consider “middle class,” I truly felt middle class. I live in a 1,700-square-foot, one-story home my parents bought 30 years ago, before the dot-com boom made Palo Alto prime real estate. My dad drove a beat-up Mazda Protégé. My brother’s and my Halloween costumes were hand-sewn by our mom. Both of my parents worked every day and alternated waking up very early to go to work in order to get home earlier so that we wouldn’t need expensive after-school care. We led an economically conscious lifestyle (with a few splurges) so that my brother and I could have the opportunity to attend this great school.
The way I lived fit all the social definitions of middle class I had ever heard. My mistake was that I believed those definitions and lifestyles fully and accurately described middle class. Walking around Palo Alto, many parts look similar to Ann Arbor: the sizes of the houses, the shops, the types of cars — plus or minus a few Priuses. I had lumped myself in as middle class and based my arguments on what I was familiar with. I thought I was middle class, regardless of income, because of my lifestyle. What I didn’t realize was that where I live gives me economic options other middle class families do not have. I was reminded repeatedly online that “middle class” is defined by social and economic factors.
However, after doing the research I should have done in the first place, I found I was not the only one with misconceptions about what being middle class meant socially and economically.
In fact, a recent CNN survey showed that 78 percent of people said they feel middle class. Only 38 percent actually were middle class in their respective areas. That survey is online for anyone to take and see where they stand on the economic ladder. The fact that CNN even has this tool should indicate that misconceptions on being middle class are common. This survey defined middle class as household incomes in the middle fifth of each county.
According to the Washington Post, a survey by the Pew Research Center “defines the middle class in the United States as any adult in a household whose income sits between 66 percent and 200 percent of the national median.” In this survey, most respondents also mislabeled themselves as middle class when they weren’t. I tried to find a universally agreed upon definition and could not.
So why do so many people identify with the middle class? An article by The Atlantic focused on what language we use to describe middle class. It showed that, in the past, middle class meant you could eventually pay off your mortgage, settle the car loan, have a job with health care coverage and afford the occasional vacation. It didn’t matter where you lived, and if you worked hard and played your cards right, you were going to get a slice of that middle-class American Dream.
Unfortunately, these days the old American Dream is harder and harder to relate to for the vast majority of Americans. In fact, according to Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook, the United States has the most uneven distribution of wealth of any advanced nation. This stark inequality in the distribution of wealth has created pockets of America where the costs of living are drastically different, because people are paying for the privilege of their location. In certain locations, access to better education, leisure activities and job opportunities make that location more desirable and therefore more expensive. Thus, the cornerstones of what used to be a middle-class lifestyle have much more diverse price points. In certain places, a higher-than-national average household income can still struggle to meet these antiquated definitions of middle class.
The easiest place to see the national discrepancy in cost of living is in real estate.
Because of its expensive real estate and resources, the price of housing in the Bay Area can be 164 percent higher than that in Ann Arbor. A two-bedroom, 1.5-bath, 1,292-square-foot house is listed for $2.2 million in Palo Alto. In Ann Arbor, a similar two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,495-square-foot house is listed for $269,900. That is a 715.12 percent increase for virtually an identical house, just in a different part of the country. But it is not just housing. The entire cost of living is more expensive in Palo Alto: groceries, health care, utilities and transportation. All in all, according to the Tax Foundation, $105.93 dollars in Michigan is only worth $88.57 in California — an approximately 20 percent decrease in purchasing power. Part of that increase in price is paying for the privilege of living in a desired location.
Previously, I thought that sharing a middle-class lifestyle was enough to make me middle class. However, I had forgotten about the intrinsic value of living in one of those pockets of wealth. Thirty years ago, my parents bought a modest house to start a family; a house they are still paying off; a house that, through the creation of Silicon Valley, has come to be worth nearly $2 million. I didn’t think about the ability to liquidate that asset when I cast myself as middle class. If my family’s economic situation ever drastically changed, we have the safety net of our location. We can sell our house, move somewhere cheaper with fewer resources and less prestige, and still be able to live comfortably. That is an option most middle-class families do not have.
All of this points to the obvious conclusion that dissimilar incomes are necessary to support similar standards of living in different places. From the CNN survey, middle class in Ann Arbor is defined as a household income of $45,436 to $75,020 a year. In my hometown, Palo Alto, California, it’s $70,529 to $112,385. By this definition, I am not middle class. While both Palo Alto and Ann Arbor are socially similar towns, they are a good example of how the economic demographics of similar cities vary widely. Upper class living in expensive places resembles middle-class lifestyles elsewhere.
It takes more than income to define the middle class. The middle class is fuzzy; it’s inconsistent. It’s relative.
There is another definition of middle class that has little to do with economics. It is entirely political. According to the president, I am middle class. In the 2012 election, both candidates Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama denoted a $250,000 income as the cutoff for being middle class. Most economists believe this number is way too high. But it serves politicians to have a high cutoff for middle class. It makes them more popular, because they can appeal to a wider range of voters.
The middle class has become a campaign platform for politicians to quote in order to get our votes. Every major policy Obama spoke about in his 59-minute State of the Union speech this January focused on helping the “middle class.” Declaring oneself as middle class has become a tired platitude uttered to get the most from our elected officials.
I still struggle to define myself because the definition of middle class is so ambiguous. There are so many ideas, viewpoints, stereotypes and generalizations about the middle class that it is no surprise many people are puzzled about how they should label themselves. But as humans, we are hardwired to label everything.
Unfortunately, I went viral. Although I have no desire to ever go viral again, it gave me the chance to delve into what being middle class really means and start an honest conversation on the topic. My mistake allowed me, and hopefully others, to learn.
Online, my naïve perception of wealth was called the “Problem with America.” In the real world, there are a lot of problems with America, which, with any luck, can be fixed by learning from a few mistakes.
Jesse Klein can be reached at email@example.com.