Celeste Headlee, The Takeaway
Celeste Headlee, is a former co-host of The Takeaway.
Not long ago, we asked what it means to be rich in the United States today. Now we're asking what it means to be middle class, and the two definitions depend on each other. The boundaries of one abut the other. I think my favorite definition of wealthy came from one of our listeners. She said that when you're rich, everything works. You don't worry about incoming bills, flat tires, broken appliances or emergency room visits because you never have to wonder if you have the money to cover the cost.
But if that is wealthy, then middle class means never knowing if the money will be there. It means just making enough to pay the bills, with a little left over. A little bit for Christmas gifts (hopefully without charging up credit cards), a tiny amount for modest vacations, maybe enough for private school, perhaps even a swimming pool in the backyard.
Many people make fun of the middle class or think of them as smug suburbanites with 1.5 children and two cars. Often the middle class is portrayed as prosaic or boring or overly concerned with keeping up with their neighbors. And it's true that the middle class are the conspicuous consumers; the American middle class holds the world record for the largest homes and the most cars in their spacious garages. I grant you, perhaps, the middle class would be in better shape if we had bought smaller houses or foregone the projection TV.
But the spending of the middle class has driven our economy for more than a hundred years. You can see this as greed and unrealistic dreams of living beyond one's means. Or you can see these habits as aspirational. Every generation wants their children to have just a little more. Everyone wants to stay above the minimum marker, remain at least one step ahead of the lower class line.
However you look at it, the middle class is more than personal income levels and spending habits. The middle class is factory line workers and McDonald's managers and loan officers and college professors, a group of people who've driven the economy and supported our schools and donated to local charities and organized little leagues and church potlucks.
I was raised middle class, which means we were always on the edge. One disaster away from, well, disaster. A stable but fragile state. I'm a child of the class that needs courage to buy gifts at Christmas and sign those mortgage papers; eternally optimistic and always somewhat imperiled.
The American economy has been taking from the middle class for decades. We are making less now than we were a decade ago, if you adjust for inflation, while costs for things like health care have skyrocketed. And generation after generation, the middle class has rolled with the punches. One income became two and families started living with second and even third mortgages... but the middle class was always one or two paychecks away from crisis. And with the Great Recession, some families haven't seen a paycheck for months.
So if the middle class has always been struggling, perhaps the new middle class is losing that that fight. Maybe we have finally made it too difficult to be middle class.