Pity the “Poor” Middle Class

Last August, U.S. News and World Report published a cover story which would undoubtedly flabbergast most of the world, and should certainly appall anybody who takes Christianity seriously.

The theme of the article, entitled “Middle-Class Squeeze,” is the sad tale of the contemporary middle class, which is said to be having a very rough time of it economically these days. Let some of the stories speak for themselves:

  • One lady, standing in front of the family’s “$85,000 log home built on 61 acres in Canton, Tex.,” says that “we can’t live in the style that my parents used to.” (Her father, it turns out, was an orthopedic surgeon.)
  • A Detroit psychologist who “finds it hard to make ends meet on $40,000 a year” tells us: “One of the realizations I had is that I can’t afford to live like my parents. I have a hard time saving. I just thought it wouldn’t be as difficult as it is to be a success.”
  • A New York couple are “outraged that two professional incomes can’t afford more than a postage stamp for a home. It seems a false sense of well-being if you can’t have a decent place to live.”
  • A Medina. Ohio nurse just left her $24,000 a year job after having a baby, expecting that they could manage on her husband’s $50,000 income. But she’s planning to return to work soon: “Two people have to work to have any luxuries or even just to meet the bills.”
  • A computer analyst in Hingham, Massachusetts thinks that, with two parents working, having one child shouldn’t prevent you from owning a home or taking a vacation, but “that’s the way it is, unfortunately. We got angry about it more than once.” He and his wife earn $75,000 a year, and worry that a second child would stretch their financial resources too tightly.

There are other stories (some of them, to be fair, involving much more genuine financial stress than the ones I have recounted) and loads of shocking statistics. For example:

  • From 1970 to 1985 a 20 percent down payment on an average-priced new home has nearly quadrupled. (To help control for inflation, it might be useful to point out that the Consumer Price Index tripled over the same period of time.)
  • Last year, 28 percent of young adults age 18 to 34 were living with their parents, up from 27 percent in 1970. [Quite a stunning increase.]
  • Per capita personal income registered a 21 percent gain between 1975 and 1985 (after inflation), but this is not reflected in median-family-income figures, because of the addition of so many low-income households.

Figures like this suggest, according to the authors of the article, that “America’s middle class is in a fix. After decades of rising living standards, many in the middle now find they’re clambering up a descending economic escalator.”

One is tempted to say that what some of these stories and figures really suggest is that America has produced a goodly number of spoiled brats, whose love of comfort is matched only by their childish expectations that it will be theirs for the asking. Since that would seem rather harsh, I had better hasten to make clear several important qualifications. First, I am not saying that America should not or cannot achieve greater economic growth than it has in the past fifteen years, nor am I denying that some of the failure to grow more rapidly is the result of unfortunate policies which ought to be corrected.

Second, I am not denying that many people have been hit hard by the slowing of economic growth (or even its decline, in real wages), or that these people are worthy of our sympathy and concern. Those who are caught up in broad dislocations and adjustments of our economy, especially in the broad unemployment which has hit dying — or at least seriously ill — sectors of the economy and geographical regions, certainly deserve both sympathy and efforts to alleviate their problems.

Third, I want to make clear my awareness — in fact, I want to emphasize very strongly — that many people today are much worse off economically for fundamentally non-economic reasons. Why have per-capita income increases been offset by such an increase in low-income households? The single most important reason is the havoc wreaked upon the American family in the last generation, especially in the form of divorce and illegitimacy. It is not surprising that families headed by young girls are by and large very poor. Nor is it surprising that families headed by recently divorced wives are very poor.

But the tales noted above are different from those of the unemployed 55-year-old steel worker or the 17-year-old unmarried mother of two or even the $20,000-a-year clerical worker whose disposable income is reduced significantly by a Social Security program that is likely to yield little real personal benefit for him in the long run.

Instead, they are tales of rather comfortably fixed young to middle-aged people who whine or rage because society has not permitted them to be still more comfortable. Apparently, a new natural law has been discovered — the inalienable right of every human being to have a higher standard of living than his parents. It is not enough to be born into one of the richest societies in human history. It is not enough to own a house — even a postage-stamp house — instead of living in a shanty in a poor barrio. It is not enough to “have trouble affording a new car,” as one woman complained, instead of feeling fortunate to be able to “get around” (even in a used car, or, with public transportation) as few people in history have been able to. It is not enough to be able to graduate from college having gone “into the hole $5,000 in student loans,” as another of the article’s interviewees put it, without seeming to realize that he is one of the privileged few in history, or even in today’s world, to be able to have so much schooling.

Is it true that $50,000 is insufficient to have any luxuries or even to meet the bills, for a couple and one child? What must be the definition of luxuries to make such a statement true? Is it true that $70,000 (based on two incomes) leaves the financial situation for a husband, wife, and one child so tight that they cannot forego the second income for a time (even long enough to permit the mother to be at home and available for her children until they are in school for a good part of the day) to have another child?

By those standards, of course, most of the families in the world should be having no children, much less exceeding the U.S. average. In fact, if those definitions of when it is possible to have another child are accurate, the human race would have died out long ago.

One perfectly understandable instinctive reaction to these complaints would be disgust, irritation, and even contempt. One could also justify a certain fear for one’s country. The tone of the complaints reminds one of the analysis in Jose Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Ortega sought to emphasize the fragility of liberal democracy in that book — written in 1930, when the imminent demise of the Weimar Republic provided an appropriate backdrop. Liberal democracy, he said, with its unprecedented freedom and prosperity, was not the natural, inevitable, and irreversible result of “progress,” but the fruit of laborious effort by “noble men” over centuries. But in the twentieth century it faced terrible dangers in the “coming of the masses.” The “mass-man” was the man who took for granted the benefits of modern liberal democracies — as something due him, as part of his birthright — and felt no sense of obligation to contribute to their maintenance. “For, in fact, the common man, finding himself in a world so excellent, technically and socially, believes that it has been produced by nature, and never thinks of the personal efforts of highly-endowed individuals which the creation of this new world presupposed. Still less will he admit the notion that all these facilities still require the support of certain difficult human virtues, the least failure of which would cause the rapid disappearance of the whole magnificent edifice.” The two chief characteristics of the mass-man are the expansion-of his vital desires and his radical ingratitude toward all that made possible the ease of his existence.

The noble man, on the other hand, defines his life not in terms of his rights, but in terms of obligations; the demands that he makes are not so much on society as on himself. Contrary to what is usually thought, it is the noble man, not the common man, who lives a life of essential servitude — except that he does not see the need to serve as oppressive.

The nobility and the masses, defined thus, are not determined by socioeconomic status. Even “two professionals” bitter at owning only a postage stamp house in New York (of all places) can merit the term “mass-men,” while nobility can be found among the poorest. Mother Teresa tells the story of a large family that, like so many in Calcutta, was starving. When Mother Teresa was able to secure them a small amount of bread, their first reaction — a truly extraordinary one — was to go and share it with the family next door. That capacity to think first of others at a time of one’s own real need is a genuine form of nobility. It is not hard to see why Mother Teresa often says that she finds more poverty in the United States — especially in the terrible scourge of abortion — than she does in India.

But, however reasonable it may seem to react harshly to the whining described above, a deeper examination will suggest a more productive approach.

How is it that such a wealthy nation can be so consumed by the desire for material well-being that conditions which are objectively rather comfortable leave people not just unsatisfied, but actually bitter? We tend to compare ourselves with others so frequently that what we see around us is what we come to hope for and even to expect. So not “real deprivation” but “relative deprivation” becomes our standard — what we think we can reasonably demand.

There is something about the middle class life which of its nature encourages this perspective. Alexis de Tocqueville eloquently expresses the phenomenon in Democracy in America:

The heart of man is not so much caught by the undisturbed possession of anything as by the desire, as yet imperfectly satisfied, of possessing it and by the incessant dread of losing it . .. [In a society where class privileges are destroyed] the desire of acquiring the comforts of the world haunts the imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich. Many scanty fortunes spring up; those who possess them have a sufficient share of physical gratifications to conceive a taste for these pleasures, not enough to satisfy it. They never procure them without exertion, and they never indulge in them without apprehension. They are therefore always straining to pursue or to retain gratifications so delightful, so imperfect, so fugitive.

The result, Tocqueville says, is that in “America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords; and it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.” He found it strange “to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.”

Materialists are doomed to dissatisfaction.

He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it. The recollection of the shortness of life is a constant spur to him. Besides the good things he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others that death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret, and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation . . .

This can lead, said Tocqueville, to a “virtuous materialism” where people work hard to get ahead and improve their condition bit by bit. But it also leaves them subject to discouragement: “It may readily be conceived that if men passionately bent upon physical gratifications desire eagerly, they are also easily discouraged; as their ultimate object is to enjoy, the means to reach that object must be prompt and easy or the trouble of acquiring the gratification would be greater than the gratification itself.”

And so, Tocqueville concludes, “in democratic times enjoyments are more intense than in the ages of aristocracy, and the number of those who partake in them is vastly larger; but, on the other hand, it must be admitted that man’s hopes and desires are oftener blasted, the soul is more stricken and perturbed, and care itself more keen.” Poor foolish human beings, to expect from a VCR or a new car what only God can provide the human heart.

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When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Christopher Wolfe was a member of the Department of Political Science at Marquette University.

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