And these three parts are not equal to each other. Sarah Jaffe notes (boldface mine):
It is probably safe to say that journalists, outside a small but dedicated cadre of labor reporters, have talked to more minimum-wage workers in the past year than in the previous 10. The stories we write can all start to sound the same after a while. Wages are too low, and that spawns a thousand problems. Poverty is expensive, as Barbara Ehrenreich recently detailed for the Atlantic; if you can’t afford a bank account, your pay might come to you on a prepaid debit card loaded with fees for accessing your own wages. If you can’t afford rent, you might be stuck living with that abusive ex. You may be caring for a terminally ill parent on top of your workweek, and when jobs are scarce, your commute might take you two hours.
I say “you” deliberately here, because much of the writing about low-wage workers tends to obscure just that fact — that these stories could well be about you. Too much writing on the left and the right has tended to treat the people in some of the nation’s most common jobs as if they are some exotic Other rather than our neighbors, our family members and ourselves.
I want to return to the part I emphasized, but first, as an educational exercise, let’s do a one question poll: what do you think a minimum middle-class salary is? I don’t mean this in a statistical sense, but how much should a person earn per year at a minimum to be considered middle class? Here’s the poll, below the fold, some data to mark your assumptions to market.
Here’s the distribution of wages from 2012 (the most recent data; the full table is available at the link):
Some caveats are worth mentioning: these data don’t take into account people who haven’t worked a full year (i.e., the underemployed), and these aren’t household data (married couples who both work obviously have a higher joint income). Moving along….
Last week, I discussed these data a bit, but it bears repeating: what most people consider to be a middle class income is out of reach for most Americans. Only 23 percent of Americans earn over $50,000 per year. One in seven earn over $70,000 per year. The middle third of the distribution is between $15,000 – $40,000. Yet our political discourse, driven by our mandarin class, has no concept of this reality (“take the middle class guy who earns $200,000 a year…”). While I agree with Jaffe that solidarity matters (we do like our solidarity), the real middle class is invisible, while the idealized middle class, which might still be precarious, is actually quite small. We do have three classes in this country: a lower class that comprises between fifty to seventy percent of the country (depending on where your cutoff is), an upper class of about the top five percent (and which contains the rich), with the middle class comprising the remainder.
As long as there isn’t an explicit understanding of what a true middle class wage is, we will continue to have a weak middle class.