What does it mean to live in the middle class?

by Kristin on October 8, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by seier+seier

Do you consider yourself middle class? Are you comfortable with your status? Are you more aware of people who have less than you or people who have more?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about work, income, and how it translates to lifestyle. It’s hard not to, with news of the bad economy and joblessness hitting us from every angle.

On a personal level, I’ve also been feeling really conflicted lately. We just put our house on the market, in hopes that we can sell it and buy something a bit bigger for our family of five. On one hand, I feel frustrated that Jason and I are feeling pinched, even though we work hard, we’re good at what we do, we’re relatively responsible with our money, and we live in an affordable part of the country. On the other hand, the fact that I feel even an ounce of self-pity makes me incredibly sheepish. We have so much, and our day-to-day wants and worries are so few. Five people jockeying for position in one bathroom hardly represents a tough life.

We are the “haves” and the “have nots”

In the midst of all these thoughts, NPR has been doing a really interesting series on what it means to “live in the middle.” There are stories about families who are struggling to make basic ends meet in the middle, stories about a family who made a conscious choice to reduce their income and simplify their lifestyle, and stories about various categories of the population—the retired, the single moms, and recent college grads.

All of this was sparked by the fact that the Census Bureau just released the new median household income: $50,000. But what does that really mean?

I’m no economist, but I know you have to dig far beyond a median number to understand its impact in the lives of real people. For instance, yesterday’s NPR piece Americans Underestimate US Wealth Inequality points out something I already knew (but try not to think about): “In the U.S., the top 20 percent of people have 85 percent of the wealth” and “the bottom 40 percent of people in the United States basically have zero wealth.” Layer onto that how widely varied our understanding of wealth inequality is, and how vastly different we’d like it to be, and you have realities that clash sharply with perceptions and hopes.

Another story, What Does Middle Class Really Mean?, gets to the heart of the matter, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not a matter of how much you make, it’s a matter of how it allows you to live. Here’s how the story’s author, Kimberly Jones, puts it:

What does middle class really mean? I’ve decided to create my own definition for the term. To me, middle class has much less to do with the actual amount of income one earns, and more to do with the degree to which one can manage the various aspects of life that involve money.  In other words, it’s not about how much you’ve got, but what you can do with what you’ve got.

Let’s admit we all make lifestyle choices

Which leads directly to my next thought—the one that I go back to again and again: We all make choices. Sure, there are some circumstances that just happen to us—we lost our job, we’re dealing with health issues, we’re stuck living in a certain city for any number of reasons—but beyond those circumstances, within those circumstances, are choices.

And let’s not fool ourselves—the choices we make represent our priorities. Do we skip nice vacations so we can send our kids to private schools? Do we get by with one car (or no car) so we can spend more on our home? Do we pack lunches and coffee from home rather than go out, so we can give money to our church or other causes we believe in? Do we put a bit into savings each month, or do we choose to live in debt in our efforts to “maintain the appearance of wealth,” as Kimberly Jones puts it?

Personally, I need to stop comparing myself to others. I need to stop wondering “how on earth can they afford that?” and stop feeling sorry for myself that the sofa I relax on at the end of each long day is threadbare. Instead, I need to be thankful for my work, do my best at it, and make good choices that reflect my priorities. Then I need to own those choices and live my life.

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  • http://bernthis.com jessica

    I live in a very expensive city and have no choice but to stay b/c of my custody issue. it’s very scary not knowing day to day if i can pay my bills and have no choice but to remain in a place I can ill afford to stay in but must. I used to be snugly in the middle, no more because as far as I can see, there is no middle anymore

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    Your post fits in with another post I read today at A Practical Wedding: (which is an awesome site about strong, smart women and their attitudes about marriage and life. It was all about the choices we make and that in making a choice, we pass something up, a la The Road Less Traveled. The writer made the point that it’s important to acknowledge and if necessary properly mourn the loss of whatever we don’t choose to fully appreciate what we do choose, and that doing so does not mean we’ve made the wrong decision. Instead we’re acknowledging that life’s decisions are tough, but we’re all the better for making them.

  • http://amberRobinson.com Amber

    So good. Things I am struggling with. How do you not compare yourself to others but be a part of a community movement to be less defined by stuff and trappings?

  • http://twitter.com/mama_kass Kass

    I’ve been thinking of writing a post on comfortable Christianity. Do we really understand what suffering and struggle (as Jesus, his disciples, and the early church understood it) is in Western civilization, especially when most of us live in abundance?

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    jessica, that’s a perfect example of a situation that affects your quality of life/cost of living but is beyond your control. And it seems the more expensive the city is, the harder it is to live in a neighborhood with good public schools for your kids. Having to consider paying for schools (or moving to an expensive suburb) just compounds the issue (or is completely impossible). I realize I’m not helping, but I do feel for you. It’s a hopeless sort of situation to feel stuck in.

    The Modern Gal, thanks for letting us know about that site—I hadn’t seen it before. I absolutely love the perspective shared by that writer. When we make a choice we don’t need to fret endlessly about it. We need to embrace it, and also acknowledge what we’ve passed up. I do that every day when I on one hand wish I had a bit more money, but on the other hand love being able to put my work aside at 3pm to go pick up my daughter from school. The same goes for the time I devote to this blog, even though it doesn’t make me a penny. These are all choices, and I don’t regret them.

    Amber, you’re making an important observation: Even in the process of trying to consciously live with less, we are comparing ourselves/making value judgments about those who have more. It’s quite a tricky road to travel.

    Kass, I hope you do write a post on comfortable Christianity! This is one of the most uncomfortable topics of all, but we need to be talking about it, in honest, open ways. Make sure you let me (us) know if you end up posting something!

  • http://www.internet-bard.com KatFrench

    Oh, Kristin. I really wish you’d stop eavesdropping on my … brain? Because you’ve more or less covered the main theme of my entire weekend. Which I was going to post about tomorrow, but now it seems superfluous. DH and I had a lengthy conversation yesterday morning about how much we make as compared to our bills, why it seems like we’re always just barely getting by, and the choices we are making.

    So, yeah… we too, are dealing with much middle-class angst, the “one bathroom may be more than 90% of the world has, but that doesn’t make it fun when you have to make Sav-A-Step your backup potty…” thing, and HOKY SMOKES BULLWINKLE, the whole question of choices defining your priorities is beating me black and blue right now…

    Also, thank you to The Modern Gal for that link, and introducing me to the whole idea of mourning the life you didn’t have… well-timed and deeply appreciated by this commentor.

  • http://davesfaithblog.blogspot.com/ Dave

    Great post Kristin! Part of it starts with our children, which you so often get to. My kids were always asking me as they grew up, “How much do you make?” The peer pressure effects of wealth, er how money is spent, is magnified on kids. My answer was always “Enough.” I’d like to think that was as reassuring an answer as it was meant to be, both to them and me.

    That answer also didn’t give them a number to compare and made them think a little harder about what is enough. I suppose as my young adults start entering the work force they will turn the tide and start teaching me about what is enough?