What Does it Mean to be a Middle Class American?

Monday, September 27, 2010

American flag at dusk (Mike Mahaffie/flickr)

For many years, an integral part of the American dream has involved making it to the middle class. We associate the phrase with steady, secure work, home ownership and providing for a comfortable — if not lavish — lifestyle for our family. But has middle class America fundamentally changed since the Great Recession hit? Do people that once saw themselves as solidly middle class see themselves differently now?

We take you on a journey on what the middle class has given this nation.

Edward Wolff, professor of economics at New York University, breaks down some of the numbers behind what defines America's middle class. He explains why the middle class was hit hardest by the economic crisis and what recovery will look like for this sector of society moving forward.

"Whichever spin you prefer, the result is the same. America's middle class made the country powerful and prosperous," says Celeste Headlee. Celeste explores the contributions of the middle class to American society.

Takeaway listener Lyndon Dees joins us to discuss life in the middle class. Dees had worked at the same consulting firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma for many years when the recession hit. He was laid off just as the recession officially went into recovery in August of 2009. Since then he's seen his family's security dwindle and his perception of the very meaning of 'middle class' change. Rochelle James says that while she has slowly risen into the middle class, from being on public assistance, she has to hustle hard to remain in middle class America.  The major difference between her experience of the middle class and just barely surviving is the level of independence she feels while taking care of her family.

The President of the United States has almost always had to seem as if he's the ultimate protector of the middle class. So how is President Obama doing? Takeaway contributor Beth Kobliner says that while Obama's policies are helping the middle class but he clearly needs work on staying on message.

When did the notion of the middle class really take shape in America? Gordon Wood, History Professor at Brown University and author of the book "Radicalism of the American Revolution," says our middle class roots are positively based in our revolutionary roots.



Lyndon Dees, Rochelle James, Beth Kobliner, Edward Wolff and Gordon Wood

Produced by:

David J Fazekas, Arwa Gunja, Hsi-Chang Lin and Jen Poyant

Comments [5]


Everyone's comments were great and I regret that I hadn't had time to mention the strength of our Unions....to Rick according to your comment it seems to me that you would like to label the MIDDLE class as having No class but I wouldn't dare lower my standards to your level and that's CLASS!!!!!......if you didnt know it.....God Bless You!!!!God Bless America!!! God Bless Our Unions!!!!

Sep. 28 2010 08:47 PM

In your discussions one of your guests repeated the oft mentioned criticism that the administration is not getting the word out on their accomplishments. I hear that a lot from pundits and although there may be some truth to the matter, maybe the Democrats are not quite communicating as well as they could, I never hear mentioned the tremendous campaign by certain corporations and wealthy right wing supporters. These entities are funding groups that are resisting and attacking all the Democratic achievements. Socialism, Obamacare, etc. are carefully researched attacks to preserve the status quo, further reduce the middle class and continue the increase in wealth of the large corporations and their owners.

Personally I think the Democrats should embrace the criticism and call it Obamacare instead of medicare.

Jerome Levitt

Sep. 27 2010 11:23 AM
SuzanneNYC from Manhattan NYC

How can you talk about the middles class without talking about unions -- which created the middle class in the mid-20th C. Unions and the GI Bill after WW II which educated a huge number of veterans who never would have gone beyond HS if that. Now we face the complete reversal of all these advances -- due to the successful assault on unions in the south and now with outsourcing of jobs. Coupled with the success of the Reagan/Republican strategy fo convincing the middle class to vote against their interests by diverting them with anti-government rhetoric and focusing on divisive social issues. And now the "middle class" seems seem ready and willing to vote for tea party candidates whose goal seems to be the dismantling of social security and medicare. There will be nothing left if this succeeds.

Sep. 27 2010 09:56 AM

Maybe we should stop calling the self described "middle class" middle class and start calling them middle spenders or middle consumers. Class implies style and behavior.

But they all define themselves in terms of consumption. Plenty of louts have houses, cable, college educations, luxary cars and big screen TVs. But they lack class.

Sep. 27 2010 09:38 AM
Joan from Jersey City, NJ

I am 46, divorced, with one child, living in Jersey City, NJ. I make $80,000 a year and barely get by - I've got exactly the national average of $7,000 in credit card debt at all times - charges for car or health emergencies not manageable on my current salary. The gentleman who noted that we now spend lots on things that didn't even exist back when we were kids makes a good point. But I think what may be most critical in that category is health insurance costs. My not-great coverage through my job (for me and my daughter) immediately eats up $8,000/year of my salary in premiums and $3,000 a year in deductible/uninsured costs. That's money people used to spend on vacations and mortgages that is now unavoidably spent on healthcare, for many. Before I lived where I am now, with a roommate sharing costs, I was 42 years old and living at my mother's with my daughter. Even at $80,000/year, in this area, that's all we could afford to do.

Sep. 27 2010 09:32 AM

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