The Happy Medium–TRANSCRIPT
Interview quote (Oliver)
“I feel, especially for Americans, we don’t know what it’s like to be truly impoverished. And, on the other hand, they don’t want to identify with the 1%. You know, they want to be that “nah, I’m just that, I’m the average American. I’m the average person.” That’s always been the dream. You know like the American Dream is what is an average American? Wife and 2 kids, “I have a house”; you know, all that stuff. I feel like that term, “average American” has been so ingrained with us, we want to middle class. Because then we’re not poor, but then we’re not one of those “elitist scum” above. You know, they want to be like “No, I’m the Joe average. I’m the hero. I’m the good guy who gets along on minimum wage.”
Interview quote (Jeff)
“Middle class carries with it the wholesome connotations[, it also I think] there are negative stereotypes to poor and rich, which are the other things people can call themselves, and working class. Middle class lacks the negatives and I think middle class is seen in American society as normal. So the claim to middle class is the claim to being normal.”
Interview quote (Nathan)
“If your lower middle-class it automatically or lower-class it automatically has a negative connotation and if yourupper class and is a very positive connotation and if you are lower if you are lower class you’re probably gonna want to say you are higher than you are and if you are way upper-class you might you know you might be modest and say you have less than you have.”
Welcome to 1500 Stories, a podcast about something Americans don’t like to talk about–economic class. 1500 Stories is an art and digital storytelling project about economic inequality in the United States. Over 700 Americans, people living in very different economic situations, have opened up to the project about their lives. These people share openly about things Americans avoid talking about–things like money, and debt, their economic struggles, their worries and their hopes for the future. 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 we explore the appeal of “middle-classness” as a label. We hear from ordinary Americans about what middle-classness means to them. In last episode people shared the ECONOMIC reasons why people prefer to see themselves as middle class. While people can recognize that they aren’t as rich as Jeff Bezos, the CEO and founder of Amazon and one of the richest men in the country, they also realize that there is someone out there even poorer than they are. In this episode, we will hear about how middle-classness isn’t just a matter of not being poor or not being rich financially; it is about being seen as a certain type of person. At the top of the episode, you heard from Oliver, a 31 year old who oversees the aquatics program at a gym, Jeff, a 51 year old university professor, and Nathan, a 29 year old cryptocurrencies trader. They talked about how the idea of being in the middle isn’t just about seeing folks as having more or less money than you–it’s connected to ideas about being average or normal or modest. It’s also in opposition to stereotypes about rich and poor people. And they weren’t alone seeing class identity as someting that signals to others that you are a certain type of person. Sara, a 23 year old living in the Central Valley of California, works retail and is saddled with student loan debt. She described middle class as less of a money thing than a social thing, pointing out that middle classness is primarily about how you are being treated and viewed by other people.
There is a lot of sociology to support Sara’s take that class, in general, isn’t just about how many economic resources we have but also about how we view ourselves and others and how we view the world at large. Class can be a source of stigma–something that makes other people look down on us or treat us badly. Or it can be a source of prestige–something that makes people take us seriously or see us in a positive light. Class shapes how people evaluate our worthiness as human beings. This is one of the reasons why we don’t like to think or talk about it too much. Also, how people judge both rich people and poor people, in particular, helps to explain the appeal of middle-classness as an identity. Dave has a small construction business in California. He is 63 and feels frustrated that he hasn’t done better economically but also feels that the only person he has to blame is himself. He explains the appeal of the middle class label like this:
“Middle class is acceptable….You can call yourself middle class. That’s an acceptable thing, because nobody wants to be the poor guy and nobody wants to be the evil rich guy…they don’t want to be looked down upon if they say they’re making barely enough to just eat and pay rent. Because, that would be lower class. They don’t want to be thought of as greedy and hoarding their money because they’re making over 250 thousand dollars a year and not donating and giving, so everybody just goes “I’m middle class”
As Dave points out, people hold stereotypes about people on both ends of the economic ladder. Kelly, a 44 year old bartender and nurse, made this confession:
“I don’t know if this is really bad for me to say, but honestly like I’ve had this thought so many times in my life when I look at people who are really wealthy or really rich people, and sometimes I feel like those people are greedier. I think they are people who give less…. I mean maybe when they get to like a extremely wealthy they’ll be like oh, but then they give money away for reasons like tax write offs and things like that. I feel like, in my experience, the wealthy people are usually not the one’s to buy people drinks at the bar Its usually the middle class, blue collar person, they also aren’t the ones who are tipping out amazing. ”
Kelly wasn’t the only person who had negative feelings about rich people. Some 1500 Stories participants believed that rich people get to be removed from the everyday worries of other Americans. The perception that rich people get to opt out of worries that so many others share puts rich people into a different category of human being altogether for some participants. Shannon is, in her words, 29 and three quarter years old. She teaches seventh graders in Arizona.
“So the school that I used to work at it was super, super, super wealthy, like professional athletes sent their kids to this school and I felt so uncomfortable talking to their parents because I just felt like I was not at their level. Like I couldn’t, like half of the people I was more educated than, but I just still felt like I couldn’t talk to them because it’s like I have no connections to your life at all. Like these people have private jets, they drive a billion dollar cars, they have, they’ve never had debt in their entire life. So I just felt like we had absolutely no connection at all. Whereas the school that I work at now, it’s very, very, very low class, one hundred percent free and reduced lunch. The kids get free breakfast, we provide food to kids on long breaks. We provide school supplies, we provide uniforms, all that. And I’m able to talk to their parents so much easier…But I’m able to like talk with those people a lot easier than people that are in the higher class. Cause I can like actually I have had some of the same like life experiences as these other people. ”
Natalia, who teaches at a majority poor high school in the Silicon Valley, also believed that rich people can be at a remove from everyday concerns.
“If you grow up in the one percent and you’re not ever checked on the privilege that you have and the safety nets that keep you where you are, if not get you further up the social class ladder, than really it makes it hard to understand what life is like for most people. I think that quality goes the same to middle class folks to working class to poor umm you know we tend to all want to think that we worked super hard for everything that we’ve gotten and yeah we’ve all worked hard but it’s easy to sort of ignore the privileges that we’ve been given…”
That idea that virtue means working hard for everything is a also running theme in the interviews. Some respondents defined wealth as not having to work. The ability to opt out of work is another thing that marks rich people off from other groups. The ability to opt out of work carries some degree of stigma given the amount of pride attached to hard work in the U.S. The value of hard work came up over and over again in the interviews. Here’s Jeff again, whom you heard at the top of the episode:
“Oh yeah work, work, work. Nothing is for free, you have to work for everything you get, do a job do it right. So yeah work was emphasized.”
As we will hear, people also stigmatized poor people because of beliefs about the importance of hard work. People might admit to stereotypes about rich people but many 1500 Stories contributors judge poor people too. K is a 31 year old graphic designer and animator who believes that poverty is a choice.
“Being poor it is up to you, right? Like you can choose to be poor or you choose to work and not being poor.”
Salma had a hard time getting a job after finishing a degree to become a dental assistant because she wears a hijab, applying unsuccessfully to 100 different offices. She is now works security for a tech company. Like K, she also sees poverty as a choice.
“People are just lazy. They’re lazy they don’t wanna work.”
And beliefs about work also shaped how Charmaine, who is retired now but worked retail in gardening shops, views poverty.
“Some of the poor people just don’t want to get ahead. The opportunity is there for them to work, but either they don’t want to work or they feel that the wage that is out there is not any good for them because they can get help elsewhere.”
Attitudes like these are not surprising. Individualism runs particularly deep in American culture. It forms the atmosphere in which Americans think about class (Schwable 2015). “The American dream” is so dominant in popular culture that it is the backdrop of all of our ideas about class. Beliefs about the possibility of upward mobility and the centrality of hard work as an American value inform how Americans draw distinctions between the middle class and the classes both above and below it. The power of the American dream as a story shapes the judgments Americans make about the worthiness of people in different class positions. Antonio, who is living a version of the American dream himself, grew up poor. His mom worked two or even three jobs at a time to provide for their family. Antonio credis his mom’s discipline in part for his eventual success as an entrepreneur. His income, at $30 million annually, was the highest among the 1500 Stories participants, and his beliefs about rich and poor people were among the most severe.
“Wealthy people–successful, rich, financially stable people–are very intelligent, very intelligent people. Broke, negative people, poor people are like that because of their level of intelligence.”
Antonio’s equation of financial success with intelligence brought to mind something an anthropologist colleague of mine from Kenya once said to me. He said that when you come from a country where pretty much everyone is poor, you aren’t burdened with foolish notions that poverty is in any way associated with lack of intelligence. We don’t have time to debunk people’s deeply held assumptions about intelligence in this episode, but suffice it to say that sociological research very much contradicts the notion that variation in intelligence is the root cause of social inequality. However, it is important to recognize that attitudes like Antonio’s, while extreme, are part of a continuum of negative stereotypes about poor people. Even those who don’t hold these negative beliefs about poor people themselves are well aware that they exist. Osiris is a 35 year old property manager and his own more modest upward mobility led him to very different conclusions than Antonio.
“And I would rather not appear to look, like, dirt poor or something. Just because I know the outlook that people treat others’ lives, I’ve seen from different perspectives. Lower class, they treat you differently as if they know you have some kind of worth. So, you know, trying to keep in that middle area is good. I have grown up in a lot lower of a class when I was growing up. We basically had nothing, and I see the distinction in how people treat you. I see how much my mom struggled, and I know it wasn’t her fault, per se, because you are given a certain hand when you are born and you just have to make the best with it. And I know she tried really, really hard to get everything together, and so it makes me have an appreciation for what you have and actually always pushing harder to get more. And then I see that other people struggle, and that makes me want to help out more, as well.”
These ideas about poor people are neither uncommon nor surprising to sociologists. A lot of sociologists have studied the stereotypes people hold about poor people and the ways in which they are portrayed in our popular culture and political debates. Sociologist Vivyan Adair (2005, p. 455) has argued that in the U.S. poverty is associated with laziness, lack of intelligence, lack of moral character, and overall pathology–having something wrong with you–and that poor people are not seen as having the “decency of ‘deserving’ citizens.” If poor people are perceived as unintelligent or lazy, then it is not surprising that people would rather identify as middle class. Ashli is a 22 year old from Los Angeles who works in retail while pursuing a journalism degree. Notice the ways in which she links individual character to poverty and wealth.
“A lot of people don’t want to admit that they’re poor. ”“It seems like people who are poor just give up. Some people work harder than others some people give up when the going gets tough and take their tough experiences as obstacles and make the best of them. I feel like the rich got to where they are because people work hard when you work hard you get rewarded.”
Negative stereotypes about poor people come, in part, from that cherished belief in the American dream, in the idea that anyone, if they try hard enough, can make it to the top of the economic ladder. Underlying the American dream is the belief that people in the U.S. generally land economically where they deserve. Sociologists like Michael Schwalbe call this belief achievement ideology–the belief that people end up in the economic positions they do because of their hard work, talent and effort alone. Americans are very mixed about whether they believe that the American dream is a reality for most people. Representative opinion polls with large sample sizes find that 50- 60% of Americans believe that the American dream is a reality, that the economic system offers equal opportunity for folks to go from rags to riches, based on their own effort and talent. 1500 Stories participants were equally mixed. On the one hand were people like Yaneth, an executive assistant at a tech company, and Eduardo, a software engineer.
“If you go down it’s up to you and if you go up it’s up to you. I think that the only obstacle is you not wanting to go forward trying to be lazy. I could have done better by sticking to school and going to college or going to university Yep so I think that the obstacle is you”
“Everyone becomes who they are of what they do. If you want to be lazy and not put in the hard work and effort to achieve your dreams, don’t blame it on society, don’t blame it on the government, blame it on yourself. You can’t blame it on anyone else but yourself…I mean. Yea I think class is a driving factor in everyday life. Cause if you’re, let’s say, in the lower, the bottom, below the poverty line and you realize that you’re in the position and that there, you know, middle and there’s the top. You, that, that really encourages you to actually work hard and move up in the ranks. because I remember when I was young, I used to be embarrassed and every time I felt that way, I just, that, I guess, that really pushed me and encouraged me to be where I am at right now..you could easily move up, it just takes dedication, hard work, and drive, and hunger, and motivation to move up in the ranks. Growing up, I was embarrassed when people asked me or when adults asked me what my parents job right now. ‘Oh, so what does your dad do?’ Instead of saying he was a field worker or he worked in the fields, I used to say he worked in the food industry. Kind of go around using ‘he works in the field’ because its, to me, personally, I felt very ashamed. Or not ashamed, I’m sorry–embarrassed to mention to people that my parents worked in very low paying jobs.”
Not everyone was so sure that upward mobility is a matter of individual effort or character. Like Natalia, the teacher at a low income high school that you heard from earlier, and Jesus, a 25 year old retail manager, they see the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps notion as a myth.
“But I think it’s, I don’t think as easy when people say “oh you just gotta pull yourself up by your bootstraps” but some people can’t even afford to get boots. That’s kind of cheesy but some people just don’t they don’t start in a position where they have those sorts of connections so they’re gonna have to work a lot harder than people that do …They move up at different rates. But I don’t think that has to do 100% with your own work ethic. …There’s gonna be obstacles that are just out of our control.”
“It’s not about like the “boot straps” mentality and how like much people work and how hard people work because I do believe that a lot of people who are of working class middle class are working harder than people in wealthier more affluent classes in lots of ways and still not able to bridge that social mobility gap. Some folks based on race and ethnicity and based on social class are going to have to jump over higher hurdle or more hurdles than others and sort of recognizing that you can take two individuals and if there’s somebody in the one percent and they’re working just as hard as somebody in like let’s say the working class, you might see a faster acceleration for the person in the one percent because they’re starting off with so much help and so many safety nets and they don’t have to navigate that system. They don’t have to circumnavigate the system, the system is built for them.”
Individuals don’t solely determine their own fate, as Anna , a stay at home mom who identifies as upper middle class, argues:
“It takes a lot for anyone to get anywhere. A lot of work. Time. Effort. Support. You can’t get anywhere without support. So, if you say you did it all on your own, that is just not so true. So, there’s always somebody there to support, for you to get where you’re at.”
While some 1500 Stories participants believed that we have the chance for upward mobility, many saw it as quite rare, really hard, and involving a lot of luck. And some folks, like Adam, a 28 year old software engineer, suggest that those on the top may not always have gotten there simply because of hard work.
“If you look at the billionaires, they failed at a lot of businesses before they had one that was successful and the reason they were able to do that is because they had such massive wealth beforehand.”
And in fact, while there is some mobility both up and down for people in the middle, there is also a lot of stickiness. The economic situation of your parents tells us a lot about where you are likely to end up. Regarding the rags to riches notion of the American dream, it is in fact quite rare for people to work their way from the bottom to the top of the economic ladder. If you were born to parents in the bottom fifth of incomes, you’ve got about a 7% chance of making it into the top fifth of incomes, and about a 40% chance of staying stuck there. The same is true at the top–if you were born to parents in the top fifth of incomes, you’ve got about a 7% chance of dropping all the way down into the bottom fifth and a 40% chance of staying in the top. As Nathan, the cryptocurrencies trader you heard from earlier, notes–it’s not easy to go from rags to riches.
“There is a Huge difference between the middle-class and upper class there’s yeah there’s if you want to get ya, there aren’t stairs between the middle-class and upper class you have to take an airplane and rocket ship and then elevator like there’s a there’s a way bigger gap between middle-class and upper class and there is between lower-class and middle.”
But if we believe in the rags to riches ideal, in the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, if we believe that everyone has an equal chance to move up, then it makes sense to blame poor people for being poor. So belief in achievement ideology, in the reality of the American dream, goes hand in hand with negative stereotypes about poor people. If we believe in the American dream, then it makes sense that we want to identify as middle-class to avoid this stigma. Here’s Charmaine, the 80 year old retiree you heard from earlier, and Elaine, who owns a flower shop:
“I’m just in the middle class with middle people, ordinary people”
“Right in the middle. I think I just feel very comfortable in the middle.”
But we also don’t want to be seen as too big for our britches. For those who are well off, claiming to be middle-class is a way of denying one’s privilege relative to others. We all want to feel that we deserve what we have. Claiming middle-class identity is a strategy for denying the privilege of wealth and for avoiding the stigma of poverty. Class labels are also moral labels. Beliefs about class systems are also beliefs about fairness. Benjamin, a project manager, reflects on the social implications of identifying as middle class.
“It definitely made me think about how cherished it is to be considered middle-class, because you have a lot people who want to identify as it. And that a lot of people demonize the upper-class, regardless of how they got there, that will demonize the wealthy or the upper-classes simply because they have what they do and because a lower-class than themselves do not have it. So, I think for a lot of people the happy medium is really where you want to be socially and financially, just because you have all these people that are not willing to accept you because you’re not superior than anybody but you’re also not inferior than anybody. It almost seems like you’re right where you should be, and everybody kind of wants that, it seems like. And I didn’t really realize that not everybody wants to be rich, everybody wants to be OK, it seems like.”
Here’s the thing, though. While there are good reasons to want to be seen as middle-class, claiming to be middle-class no matter what one’s actual economic situation is also a kind of denial of just how deeply unequal the the U.S. is. When people whose income places them in the top 20% of earners nonetheless believe they are middle class, then the true levels of economic disparity that are currently present in the U.S. become invisible and, perhaps, unsolvable. If everyone is believed to be middle class, then we have no hope of turning this tide. We must bridge the gap between people’s perceptions of class and the reality of the distribution of income and wealth. Perhaps stories are one way to do this. On the next episode we will learn that despite the appeal of middle class as a social label, many people question whether the middle class even exists anymore economically.
This episode was written, produced and edited by Jennifer R. Myhre, with editing assistance from Lea Li and 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 Council 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. Thanks to Melanie Bennetts, Lea Li, Elizabeth Mjelde, and Melinda Poley for their ears in early stages of drafting this episode. 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 of these stories at 1500stories.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at 1500 Stories. Thank you for listening. Listening deeply to another person’s story is one of the most valuable gifts you can give them. Imagine how the world might change if we really listened to each other.