This week, Joe Biden tweeted about what it means to be middle class. Of course, with all the news swirling around Biden and President Trump recently, you might have glossed over it. But the ratio it received—nearly 4,500 comments to more than 2,400 retweets, at the time of writing—told a different story. “Being middle class isn’t a number,” the tweet read. “It’s a value set.”
Being middle class isn’t a number. It’s a value set. It’s about the issues that matter to every American family: a good education, economic opportunity, access to quality, affordable health care.
We've got to rebuild the middle class and, this time, ensure everyone comes along.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 30, 2019
This didn’t ring true to many people who voiced their frustrations on Twitter. “No, Joe, middle class is not about a set of values,” writer Roxane Gay wrote in response. “That’s what people who are only concerned with one demographic say. This is really frustrating and myopic.”
Several research institutes make the case that financial standing alone doesn’t define the middle class, but there are numbers attached to the demographic; in 2016, the Pew Research Center found that middle-income families—in a three-person household—earned between $45,200 and $135,600. The Brookings Institution defines it as a broader range, from $37,000 to $147,000 for a household of three.
Politicians, regardless of political party, expend a lot of energy trying to curry the favor of the middle class, often making general statements about the successes or challenges faced by this huge swath of the U.S. population. But with the exception of figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has made her working-class background part of her platform, most politicians themselves are fairly affluent. Last year, Roll Call reported the 115th Congress was worth a total of $2.43 billion (though following the midterm election, that number was slated to drop by more than $900 million). The total figure is likely even higher, given that politicians aren’t required to publicly disclose the value of their properties.
It's been more than two years since the American people hired President Trump and a Republican Congress to get Washington’s foot off the brake of our economy. Since we got to work rebuilding middle class prosperity, it's been an all-American comeback.
— Leader McConnell (@senatemajldr) February 5, 2019
Because of this, for many of the “everyday Americans” politicians say they want to help, these statements can feel lacking in nuance—in part, perhaps, because many politicians no longer relate to their lived realities.
“The middle-class dream has become harder to achieve, and I feel like that’s an issue that members of either the middle class or those trying to reach the middle class want to see addressed,” says Mike Gnitecki, a firefighter and paramedic in Longview, Texas. “The problem we have is that the way politicians are trying to address the issue kind of seems to be in a pandering or disconnected way.”
Defining “middle class”
One problem is with the terminology itself. Given the high variance in cost of living across the U.S., it’s difficult to nail down an earnings range that yields a middle-class lifestyle in every state and city.
“I think we need to recognize that the middle class is not a monolithic group,” says Capri Cafaro, a former member of the Ohio Senate and executive in residence at American University. “The middle class in a place like I represented in Ohio is defined drastically differently under income and quality-of-life standards than it would be in a place like Manhattan or San Francisco or D.C.” In one of those cities, earning $101,000 won’t get you far, Cafaro says. But in Youngstown, Ohio, that income could get you a four-bedroom house and two cars—and maybe even enable you to send your kids to a state school.
The conceit of middle class “values” isn’t entirely off-base, according to researchers at groups like the Brookings Institution. It’s difficult to clearly define the middle class because historically, the group has been associated not just with an income bracket but also a type of lifestyle or mindset. (Even with respect to income, there’s not enough consensus: Some experts peg the bottom of the bracket as low as $13,000 and the upper end as high as $230,000.)
The Brookings Institution describes the middle-class ethos through a combination of income and economic resources, occupation and educational qualifications, and attitudes. “Middle class [is] both a technical income bracket as well as a concept,” Cafaro says. “How do you target a concept? Even if you were to do a focus group and say what does it mean to be middle class, you’re going to get a bunch of different answers from a bunch of different people.”
So as much as politicians bandy around the phrase “middle class,” it’s not always clear to whom they’re actually speaking. “A lot of politicians are, frankly, trying to spin what that means to embrace a much broader spectrum of folks,” says Rick Stafford, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. From a political standpoint, this is an effective strategy: Addressing people who are neither rich nor poor is, in theory, less likely to alienate any one part of their base.
The evolution of middle-class jobs
Being middle class is 30% more expensive now than it was 20 years ago, according to Alissa Quart, the author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America. For many Americans, the markers of the middle class—from job stability to homeownership—feel increasingly out of reach in 2019, as college and medical debts soar. This is a feeling politicians seem to understand, if abstractly. But it’s hard for even a politician with a middle-class upbringing to grasp the full picture of middle-class life decades later.
For many folks in the middle class, talking about their economic challenges is difficult in itself. “This can be hard for members of the middle class, a group that has a real sense of stigma about financial floundering,” Quart wrote in the New York Times.
Americans have long bought into the myth of the meritocracy—that they are entirely responsible for their personal and financial success. It’s a belief system that discounts the barriers faced by communities of color, for example, and the advantages conferred upon the affluent graduates of elite universities.
The narratives of politicians who bootstrapped their way to affluence don’t help mitigate that belief—and they also may not take into account the stark reality of a job market that looks vastly different from the one these older politicians navigated. “Being part of the middle class and getting to the middle class is not achievable in the same way that it was 40 years ago because of things like automation and the decline of labor unions,” Cafaro says.
Christina Oswald, a tech analyst at an energy company based in Detroit, finds that politicians do try to reach blue-collar workers—a group that President Trump courted during his campaign. While it’s of course true that many blue-collar jobs have disappeared, Oswald feels that politicians often gloss over the myriad white-collar jobs that don’t necessarily qualify as upper-middle-class or secure upward mobility.
“A lot of people in white-collar environments are still middle class,” she says. “Politicians will talk about the working class—the auto workers and everybody in that group—and consider all of them middle class. But there is that subset of people who work in a white-collar job in an office, who are still scraping to get by. And I feel like that group is often really forgotten.”
Where voters stand on the issues
Politicians on both sides of the aisle make generalizations when talking to the middle class. “There’s a fear [among certain politicians] that if they raise any taxes to pay for [social and welfare] programs, that they’ll encounter a loss of votes,” Gnitecki says. “But I think in reality, a lot of people in the middle class have a lot of interest in a long-term outcome.”
Candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed plans to combat student loan debt, through a combination of debt forgiveness and free tuition at public colleges. But the deep mistrust many Americans have in government can also make them wary of government-sanctioned help. According to a Pew study, only 17% of Americans trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time,” and in another report, nearly two-thirds of Americans acknowledge this lack of trust gets in the way of solving key problems.
“I think [politicians] are making a big mistake assuming people want free stuff,” Cafaro says. “Part of the middle class is about [believing in a] meritocracy and being able to earn your upward mobility.” Oswald points out that many people who identify as middle class are, in fact, educated—contrary to what, say, Biden’s tweet might imply—but still struggle to find employment or end up underemployed.
As a first-generation college student, Oswald says it’s hard for her to make ends meet despite having a comfortable, white-collar job. Nine years after graduating from college, Oswald continues to chip away at her student loans. “I think of myself as middle class, and I have a good day job,” she says. “But even though I have potentially the income of somebody who could be upper middle class, because my family did not have the money to pay for me to go to college, I took out student loans. So now my income does not match my lifestyle, I guess you could say.”
For years, Oswald held more than one job—even now, she bartends—and she recognizes her parents will need help when they retire. “I know that I am my dad’s retirement plan,” she says.
Oswald also isn’t sure politicians realize just how precarious middle-class finances can be, perhaps because many of them have a safety net. “I definitely think it’s a little underrepresented that the middle class is one single missed paycheck or one car repair away from practically drowning in debt,” Oswald says. “A lot of people have savings, but it’s not enough to support anything beyond a month of issues or things that happen.”
When Oswald went through unemployment, it took her three weeks to receive a check, despite having all her paperwork in order. “I would love to know if a politician knows how long it takes to get your first unemployment check after you’ve lost your job,” she says. “I’ve been in that situation; it took three weeks for me to get my first check. Not everybody can hold on for three weeks.”
Instead of using “middle class” as a catchall, she says, politicians could focus on talking about specific issues, more like some of the conversations that are happening around student loan debt. “That would be a great way to reach more people,” she says. “Every issue isn’t just a middle-class issue.”