Not Rich Not Poor–TRANSCRIPT
Which of these classes would you say you belong to? …..poor, working class, middle class, upper middle class, and upper class.
R..Middle class, because I am not rich or poor, I am confortable.
The poor people in America are actually hella rich compared to everyone else in the world right? So it’s always like subjective kind of like who you surround yourself with. So if your idea of rich is like Kim Kardashian and your idea of poor is that family who lives in an apartment and if you’re anywhere in between then you think like, “Oh I’m middle class.” No one really remembers the statistics of what it means to be middle class or like it’s just, people just see themselves as average even if you really aren’t but just because you’re always conscious of like who has more than you and who has less than you so it puts you in the middle.
Welcome to 1500 Stories, a podcast about something Americans don’t like to talk about–economic class. My name is Jen Myhre and I founded 1500 Stories back in 2015. I have a day job teaching sociology–or as I like to call it, delivering the bad news–at a community college in Silicon Valley and when my day job ends my work as a visual artist, documentarian and community organizer begins. 1500 Stories is an art and digital storytelling project about economic inequality in the United States. It is a poster created by economist Stephen J. Rose depicting roughly the bottom 90% of Americans in terms of income and wealth. The poster only shows that bottom 90% because the top 10% can’t fit on the poster. The poster would need to be 1500 stories tall to capture the richest Americans. That’s five miles long!! 1500 stories stuck with me and one day it hit me–STORIES!! Over 700 Americans, living in very different economic situations, have opened up to the project about their lives. No matter where they fall on the economic ladder, everyone has a story.
And before we get too far in, just a quick heads-up about the audio quality. 1500 Stories is a labor of love. Volunteers and students, rather than radio professionals, gather all of the stories in the 1500 Stories project archive. They conduct interviews in all types of odd places and often on their phones. So our audio quality can’t always live up to public radio standards, but the stories are SO worth it. 🙂
In this episode of the 1500 Stories podcast we explore the appeal of “middle-classness” as a label. We hear from ordinary Americans about what middle-classness means to them. In this episode we focus on the ECONOMIC reasons why people prefer to see themselves as middle class. In the next episode, we will look at how being “in the middle” implies being a certain type of person.
I’m starting with the economic reasons for identifying as middle class because, unlike most sociologists, 1500 Stories participants largely define class in terms of money. Traditionally, sociologists have NOT defined class primarily in terms of money. When I teach introduction to sociology, I define it for my students as one’s position within the economy, and the amount of economic power and control that comes with that position. We talk about the notion of a working class–people who sell their labor for wages–and an owning class–people who profit from the labor of others. We talk about the idea of class as people who share common life chances, lifestyles and tastes. Sociologists tend to reserve the phrase socioeconomic status, rather than class, for the combination of educational credentials we have, our occupation, our income–the money we earn–and our wealth–the assets we have. 1500 Stories contributors don’t make these fine-grained distinctions. Listen to how Steven, a 58 year old sales rep for a masonry supple company in the Midwest, answers the question: What does the word class mean to you?:
When you hear the word class, as in economic class, what does that mean to you?
It means to me primarily it has to do with money, how much money a certain individual makes, what type of housing they’re in, what type of vehicles they can earn or have, and where they live, and so economic class to me primarily means how much money do you make.
So I spent much of 2020 reading interviews with Americans from all walks of life about their economic positions, people like those you heard at the top of the episode–Gill the 54 year old laboratory assistant and Nora the student who does childcare while attending college. I’ve learned that people are interesting and strange and beautiful. One thing I began to find increasingly worrisome and puzzling is how attracted people are to the identity of middle class. Why am I worried? Because the highest earners in the U.S. earn most of the income, the richest Americans own the bulk of the wealth and many many Americans at the bottom have no financial cushion for even the smallest of emergencies. If middle class is a catch-all category, how can we possibly face up to and reduce rising economic inequality?
I’m going to get back to the 1500 Stories interviews, but first consider this survey data: Only 1 in 5 of the nation’s HIGHEST earners consider themselves wealthy. Only 1 in 5. (Rasmussen 2018). Or how about the fact that most people making over $250,000 per year would rather call themselves upper MIDDLE class than rich or upper class? (Bird & Newport 2017) Just to share a small reality check, median household income in the U.S. is $62,000 per year (Guzman 2019). Median is a statistics term to mean that half of the people make below that number and half of the people make above it. So half of American households make less than $62,000 each year. 62K is the middle. Those families making over $250,000 who prefer to see themselves as upper middle class aren’t QUITE 1 percenters, but they do make more than 98% of us (Van Dam 2016).
What about those on the other end of the economic ladder? Well, it turns out that almost everyone making less than $40,000 would also rather use the labels working or middle class than lower class or than poor. Remember that 62K is the middle. (Bird & Newport 2017). It is common wisdom, and almost a joke, that Americans like to identify as middle class. Indeed, survey after survey has found that Americans call themselves middle class regardless of what job they do, how much money they make, or how much wealth they own. Upper middle class folks tend to deflate their class identity down to middle class and many working class folks inflate their class identity up to middle class. (Sosnaud, Brady & Frank 2013).
The upshot of all of this: No matter how much money Americans have, many still insist on the label of middle-class. Why? This episode will explore one of the most common reasons why. Given that people tend to define class in terms of money, that reason may be very simple, according to two social scientists named Jonathan Kelley and M.D.R. Evans (1995): almost everyone can recognize that there are people who have more than they do and people who have less. Let’s hear from Primo, a cook, caretaker and small business owner.
“Well I mean like anything else you need to reference that against something. We’re not poor. I think poor people need government assistance and there’s nothing wrong with that for those who truly need it…We’re not ‘wealthy wealthy’ where we can vacation wherever we want at will. We just save up and go. You know we can miss a day from work or a week from work and it doesn’t hurt us financially. I think there’s people that if they miss a day from work they’re done.”
Economically, we were I guess, I could say middle class because we never had … We always had food on the table, we had a roof over our heads, and we never had desire something.
You just heard from Irma, a mom studying to be a registered nurse, that to be middle class is to be NOT poor–to have food on the table and a roof over one’s head. And as Primo, a cook, caretaker and small business owner, tells it, to be middle class is to be not rich, not ‘wealthy.’” Dozens of 1500 Stories contributors defined middle-classnesss the way that Primo and Irma do. For these Americans, middle-classness is defined more by what it ISN’T than by what is IS. Take Francisco, a supervisor in a swim school who identifies as middle class.
“You’re not necessarily in that poverty where you’re like struggling check to check or like even under that, but you’re also not wealthy enough to where you can buy whatever you want or do whatever you want whenever you want.”
Jesse, a nursing assistant, also defines middleclassness by what it ISN”T.
Well, um, I guess what I mean, is that when I have to choose what class I’m in, then I guess I’ll have to choose in the middle class maybe. Cause I don’t have what rich people have. Um, well, if I have to define the class position, I would say probably in the middle class, I wouldn’t say in the lower but I would say the middle class. I mean, we’re not out on the streets. We’re not and when we have a house we have we have a roof under our heads. We eat healthy foods, and then we have a good time as well. But we dont have the luxurious things like what rich people have. So I would say in a middle class, maybe
If Middle-classness isn’t poor, then how do people think about poverty? 1500 Stories contributors described poverty as when you don’t have a lot of savings and have to live paycheck to pay check. You’re poor when you don’t owning a home or you have to share housing with others.
“If I need tires, I’m gonna have to save for that. I would look at somebody that has to save money to get tires for their car as the working class, not the middle class. Then again see I think of middle class as–you’re not poor. You’re okay.”
On the one hand, as Armida who works in theater arts observed, middle-class people don’t have to save up money to buy tires. On the other hand, many 1500 Stories participants felt that rich people have more than what they need. They see rich people as people who live and spend extravagantly. Here’s Ali, a 20 year old student,
Ali: I am probably middle class. Because I am not poor, and I am not working class because working class as far as I know they make just enough to make a living for themselves without much savings or anything, and higher class just have way too much money to spend, and I am neither of those so I am probably middle class.
For Greg, a retired manufacturing engineer, middle-classness means
Interview quote: “No trips to Europe. We went to Hawaii and we’d do the bargain basement pleasant Hawaiian vacation trip where it’s cheap. I always thought that’s like middle class.” (Greg) (SV_andradastephanie_5703_63686_Transcription…GregRangel-1.doc)
Rich people are perceived by some, like Jasvinder, a chemistry teacher, as having money to throw around.
“The way the world looks at you, I think we’re at middle class, I don’t think we have too much where we can dump and throw anywhere we like. On the other hand, we have enough to support ourselves to make sure we can take of our basics and educate our child. We are not rich in any form or shape.”
Middle class, in contrast to the grinding insecurity of poverty and the excess of being rich, meant being economically “comfortable” or “financially stable.” Manuel, an electronics technician, doesn’t think too much about class but believes that middle-class is about a certain level of comfort.
“I’m definitely not rich, so suppose if I had to put myself in a class I would be middle class. It would be middle class. I mean, we have a nice house, I have a nice family and a dog. Again I’m comfortable and I’m happy being comfortable, so class isn’t that important to me. But if I had to say, I’m a middle class person.”
That comfort, though, doesn’t go down very deeply. It’s fragile, it’s superficial. As Huyen (pronounced hwhin) commented,
That’s is the middle class, they have to pay everything that’s why their income is just enough to pay for insurance, or food, or just enough for travel around Bay Area. They are at the middle means they are not poor but not rich. They have to pay taxes, rent and insurance… So with their income, it’s just enough for them.
Susie works what she calls a “Monday to Friday job” in insurance. She also acknowledged that while middle class people are comfortable, they are still vulnerable because they have debt and, unlike richer people who might not have to worry so much about money, middle class folks are just “managing.” Listen to Ben,who manages a sushi restaurant:
“Middle class.. For me, it represents that you’re still kind of worrying but you’re not as unfortunate as the lower class in terms of money. You’re still worrying a little bit, but you’re getting by.”
The middle class might be getting by, on just this side of poverty on the one hand but not quite comfortable enough to have a large economic cushion, but some respondents identified actual dollar figures on that middle ground. We shouldn’t be too surprised that lower income Americans set that dollar figure lower than higher income Americans. Remember that median household income in the U.S. is $62,000 (Guzman 2019) and median personal income is $35,000 (https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MEPAINUSA672N). Median, you may recall, is a fancy stats term that tells us that half of the people fall below that number and half of the people fall above. So when we say that median household income is $62,000 that means that half of Americans make more than that and half make less. Household income refers to the total amount of income that is made when you add up all of the workers in a home. Personal income is just your own earning. That’s why median personal income in the U.S. is less than median household income. If median personal income in the U.S. is $35,000 that means that half of Americans make more than that individually and half make less. The 1500 Stories contributors who make less than median income tended to set the income threshold for middleclassness lower than those who made more. Athena, whose personal income is less than $20,000 each year, set the threshold for arriving in the middle class at an annual income of $35,000. Jiayang (Kenny Hu’s late transcript), who had no income at the time of his interview other than financial aid as he attends college and who at times had needed food stamps, set the threshold at $60,000-$72,000 per year. People like Athena and Jiayang, making well below median income, were closer to ‘reality’ in their guesses about median income than higher income folks were. Remember that median household income in the U.S. is $62,000 (Guzman 2019) and median personal income is $35,000 (Van Dam 2016).
Just how off, though, were 1500 Stories participants with higher incomes in their guesses about middle income ranges? Well there was Kate, a teacher whose personal income of around $100K means that she makes more than 92% of Americans (Van Dam 2016) and whose household income is between $300,000 and $350,000. A sociologist would say that Kate is rich. Her personal and household income would mean that she wouldn’t make it onto the poster that 1500 Stories is named for, because she is in the richest 10%. But Kate doesn’t see herself as rich.
Interviewer: So what economic class do you think you belong to? Kate: You mean between middle class.. like that kind of thing? I would say middle class to upper-middle class. Interviewer: How come? Kate: I don’t know if I’m right with numbers but I always thought middle class, like in terms of salary makes about 75K combined. And I always thought that upper makes 300K and up. I don’t know if that’s right anymore but we’re in between that.
Sheina made $118,000 year herself and lived in a household that made over $200,000. Sheina described the range of $80,000 to $150,000 per year as what it takes to be in the middle class. And then there was Vinh, a small business owner. Vinh makes more than 95% of of Americans with an yearly income of $125,000 but he sees himself as squarely middle class.
“To me, middle class can be ranged anywhere from $100,000 annually to a million dollars annually. That to me is middle class. I don’t know which American made up that $50,000 annually is middle class, but I don’t think that is middle class. I think that is the high end low class. But right now, I believe that I’m middle class. I’m still the middle class until I hit a hundred million or more and move up a little better.”
While as a sociologist, I know that Vinh’s notion of what income levels fall at the middle is wildly off, I can also understand why folks like Kate and Vinh might see themselves as middle class. As a teacher at a community college in the Silicon Valley, my own annual income is more than 90% of Americans. But I rent a one bedroom apartment, drive a Honda Civic, and other than a small savings account, have pretty much no wealth. I don’t have a private jet and my life doesn’t *feel* like I’m living high on the hog. Nonetheless, I make more than most Americans. My life may not feel very extravagant but most Americans are living much closer to the bone than I am. The economic situation of most Americans is much more precarious than mine.
So what are we to make of the popularity of the label middle class? When people at the very top of our economic ladder nonetheless believe they are middle class, then the true levels of economic economic inequality that are currently present in the U.S. become invisible to us and, perhaps, unsolvable. If we tried to picture the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. that picture would NOT look like a bell curve with a large lump of people “in the middle.” Instead, there is a large mass of people “at the bottom” and then a very thin spire of people that leads upward to the highest earners. 90% of Americans have a yearly personal income of $100,000 or less (Van Dam 2016). If we look at wealth–what people own instead of what they earn–economic inequality is even more severe. Right now, three men–Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates–collectively own more wealth than if we added up the wealth of the bottom 50% of Americans combined (Collins & Hoxie 2018). Those 3 men own as much wealth as the bottom 160 million people together.
To think about the economic vulnerability of those 160 million people in other way, at the start of the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, only 61% of Americans could cover an unexpected expense of $400 (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System 2019). Yet, as we can see from the stories in this episode, while people can recognize that they aren’t as rich as Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, they also realize that there is someone out there even poorer than they are. They may not be rich, but they also don’t feel poor. There is maybe no real “middle” anymore, but yet the label of middle-class remains an appealing middle ground, it remains, as we shall learn in the next episode, a “happy medium.”
End credits: This episode was written, produced and edited by Jennifer R. Myhre, with editing assistance from Deven Sutaria. The music that opens and closes each 1500 Stories episode was composed and produced by Benjamin Henderson. Additional music was composed by Jesus Correa. You’ll find references for the sociology and data discussed in this episode in the show notes. The 1500 Stories podcast was launched thanks to generous financial assistance from the Mellon Foundation and American College of Learned Societies community college faculty fellowship program. However, any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed here are our own and do not necessarily represent those of Mellon or ACLS. Special thanks to all of the storygatherers who conducted interviews for the project and all of the people who shared their stories so openly. You can hear and watch more stories at 1500stories.org and follow us on social media at 1500 Stories. Thank you for listening, and remember that listening deeply to another person is one of the most valuable gifts you can give them.