Voice of nameless interviewer:
So what did you learn from living in Stockton from social class?
Interview quote (Oscar):
That it was rough, there was a fine line between high class and middle and low class. It was a real fine line. In Stockton, you see everyone’s low income, everybody is trying to grind bro, like I said everyone has to work, like 9-5. everyone has to work, like even their mom’s, their mom’s mom, their dad’s dad, their kids working to makes ends meet, Where I’m from South side Stockton. but uh you go, even up north, you see the the transition from like lower class, lower working class, to high class, all the big old houses with the nice cars in front of them, and then you can see like oh wow, is that what it’s like to be rich, like these houses are big, like this is what means to be high class, cause you see in the Southside, everybody is like sharing houses with their families and over there its like two people living in a mansion, like bro, you can feed the whole south side with that thing, its crazy.
Music cue— 1500 Stories theme music
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. 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 the Silicon Valley and when my day job ends my work as a visual artist, documentarian and community organizer begins. You might be wondering about where the name 1500 Stories comes from. It comes from a visual data display I have nerded out on for over twenty years. It is a poster created by economist Stephen J. Rose depicting roughly the bottom 90% of Americans in terms of income and wealth. Posters don’t make good podcast material but if you were to look at you would notice that most of the people cluster at the bottom and most of the wealth and income clusters at the top. The poster only shows that bottom 90% because the top 10% can’t fit on the poster. In 1997 when I first started teaching the poster in my Introduction to Sociology classes, the poster would need to have been 3 stories tall to capture the richest Americans. By the time 2015 came around, the poster would need to have been 1500 stories tall to capture the richest Americans. That’s five miles long!! That phrase 1500 stories stuck with me and one day it hit me–STORIES!! We need to tell our stories about economic class. Since then, 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.
This episode is the third and final of a mini-series exploring middleclassness in the U.S. In the first 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 Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and one of the richest men in the country, they also realize that there is someone out there even poorer than they are. 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. Because 1500 Stories participants think of money when they think about class, it makes sense that so many see themselves as middle class. Almost everyone can recognize that there are people who have more than they do and people who have less. The second episode looked at another major reason why so many Americans are attracted to the identity of middle-class. 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. That episode explored how class labels are also moral labels. Beliefs about class systems are also beliefs about fairness. 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.
In this third and final episode of the mini-series about middleclassness, we explore the curious contradiction that while many Americans prefer to identify as middle class, many also question whether the middle class even exists anymore. Many view the class system as one in which the middle class has largely disappeared. Ironically, even though many people prefer to self-identity as middle-class, only a handful of 1500 Stories participants believe that most people actually are middle class. The ones that did saw the middle class as a couple of participants put it. as “quite a large range,” with “a lot of degrees of middle.” Even as he acknowledges economic inequality, Steven, a 58 year old sales rep for a masonry supple company, holds a common image of American meritocracy in which middle-classness is tied to opportunities for upward mobility:
Interview quote (Steven):
“In the United States there are people that are are very, very rich–that 1 to 5%–and then there are certainly those that are at or near poverty or very low income. But I think the vast majority of people in the United States because they have the opportunity for schooling, they have the opportunity and freedom to move up in their life, they have the opportunity to earn more money, because of that I think most people are middle class.”
Unlike Steven, more commonly 1500 Stories participants recognized how rising economic inequality has meant lower living standards even for people formerly considered middle-class and increased vulnerability for most Americans. Alongside skepticism about “the American dream” were images of the class structure that were essentially two-class system: a very tiny minority of people holding a majority of the resources and a very large majority of people holding a minority of the resources. Like Oscar, the customer service worker at a rental car agency whom you heard at the top of the episode, many participants saw the class divide as primarily a rich-and-everyone-else divide. Except for the lucky few, everyone is trying to grind, as Oscar put it. Among the dozens of participants who believed that there’s no such thing as middle class was Francisco, who is a supervisor at a swim school part-time while studying fire science in college:
Interview quote (Francisco):
“There’s not really a middle class anymore. I mean you have the small percentage of people who fall under the middle class but you’ve got a shit ton of poor people and you’ve got maybe less than a percent of rich people who have all the money.”
Middleclassness might just be a convenient lie we tell ourselves, for all of the reasons shared in the previous two episodes of 1500 Stories. Class both does and doesn’t matter to Americans. They don’t think about it much unless asked about it. Yet, it shapes their perspective about their own lives and the lives of others. While people can recognize that they aren’t as rich as Bill Gates, they also realize that there is someone out there even poorer than they are. And, given the stereotypes people hold about folks on both ends of the economic ladder, claiming middle-class identity is a strategy for denying the privilege of wealth and for avoiding the stigma of poverty. Claiming middle-class identity is a way to avoid being seen as entitled but also escape the contempt many people hold for poor people. When people believe that the class system is open and fluid and that people have the ability to move up the economic ladder if only they try hard enough, make the right decisions or go to school, then they see poor people as people who have only themselves to blame for their struggles. They see rich people as smarter or more hardworking. When people believe that inheritance, racism, luck and/or other structural forces shape who ends up where, then they see poor people as people who work hard but face challenges beyond their control. They see rich people as people who are able to leverage their privilege to gain even further advantages. Middle-classness offers a pathway to escape these judgments. While the mythos of “the American dream” is ubiquitous in the cultural air that all Americans breathe, there is not as much consensus about the truth of that mythos as people generally assume. In fact, just as many respondents questioned it as endorsed it. Middle class identity is perhaps comforting but for many 1500 Stories participants it is a fiction. Listen to Belinda, a 30 year old optician:
Interview quote (Belinda):
“Most people are lower-class, actually. And, they, they may think that they’re middle-class.”
Alex, a 30 year old small business owner, puts it bluntly.
Interview quote (Alex):
I think [its just racism, think] a middle class is a working class. You aint rich you poor you just think your rich and you want to say your a middle class to down grade everybody else thats a working class.I think a working class is somebody thats really trying struggling to get what they want and at the end of the day I think its just all category. Middle class is poor middle class aint shit middle class people are in debt.
1500 Stories participants blamed rising economic inequality and lower standards of living for the disappearance of the middle class. Emil is only 17 and works as a food server but he seems to have a sharp eye nonetheless for rising inequality.
Voice of interviewer:
Many people in the U.S describe themselves as middle class. Why do you think that is? Do you think that statement is correct?
Interview quote (Emil):
With income inequality I think that statement is false, because things have switched around I think. But since the lower class become more lower and the middle class is the new lower standard.
So there’s a bigger gap?
Yea there is a bigger gap now. And then those top 20%, god damn they make billions! (laughs) Yea especially here. Yea but with income inequality, house, people, what used to be normal is now different. Most people are middle class I guess, but in reality they are lower class.
Jesus, a 25 year old retail manager, observed how the impacts of the 2008 economic recession translated into sliding down the economic ladder for those who were middle class.
Interview quote (Jesus):
“Right now I think it’s really easy to see who has a lot of money, but I feel that people who don’t have a lot of money and people who are like, used to be in the middle class are kind of in the same boat right now. Where like people who are middle class are losing jobs and having to spend less, but then poor people are in the sa me boat. Maybe they’re not losing jobs because the jobs that poor people tend to have are fast food, and retail, and labor intensive. Which I think middle and lower are meshing together. So I guess I would consider myself in one of those. I know when 2008 was, when there was a recession, and at that time my dad had lost one of his jobs so we were already, we weren’t struggling, but we were already making sacrifices by the time the recession came so it didn’t really seem like it was a change because I feel like it really affected people who were making a lot of money. So I think that put things into perspective because it made me realize that we weren’t as, I don’t want to say we weren’t as middle class, but the idea of middle class kind of didn’t exist anymore because a lot of these things that had been affecting a lot of these financial crisis had really been affecting people who make a lot of money. And people who are sort of in between and at the bottom don’t really feel the effects because they’re that’s kind of daily life for them.”
1500 Stories participants, like JE, who is a middle aged nuclear research technician, could recognize how precarious life is for many Americans, and how easily the illusion of middleclassness can be punctured.
Interview quote (JE):
“I think that middle class is um more– is working class people–that are able to afford some of the basic things like a house, a car, food, living comfortably, you know? But they’re only a few paychecks away from not having nothing. If they lost their job, I might be able to hold it down for a few months but after that I would be no different than someone that’s someone that’s out on the street with not a penny in their pocket.”
On the social stratification poster that was the inspiration for the 1500 Stories project most of the people cluster at the bottom and most of the wealth and income clusters at the top. Looking at it you get the sense that there is only one class distinction that matters–the 90% of us who fit on the poster and the folks who don’t, include the very tiny number people 1500 stories up, 5 miles up.
Interview quote (anonymous)
“Now even middle class is low income.”
“I think that middle class is declining in this world’s population. At this point you’re either rich or you’re poor.” “Middle class isn’t really considered middle class anymore.”
Now I think it’s more clearly visible the haves, have nots and I think part of it is because the middle class in America is kind of its definitely shrinking. Is visibly you know statistically like I mean it is shrinking right so yeah I mean that separation between the haves and have nots is a lot more clearly visible.
These observations by 1500 Stories participants are in line with current ideas about class and economic inequality in sociology. In recent years, some of the most influential sociologists in the study of class, led by British scholar Mike Savage, have observed that we are seeing new class forms as industrialization has moved out of the U.S. and other Western nations. And increasingly, as Savage and his colleagues point out, new class forms are deeply shaped by the rising economic polarization of a what they call a ‘destitute precariat’ and extremely wealthy elite. This elite is small but very powerful. The established middle class and the traditional working class are no longer the key class divides in society. While age and expertise are increasingly important differentiators among those in the middle of the class structure, nonetheless, Savage and his colleagues argue (2015, p. 1023) that “the fundamental structural division…[is]…a powerful corporate class against all the other classes.” And some 1500 Stories participants, including Sonia, a 48 year old high school teacher and Blair, an assistant at a veterinary clinic, do acknowledge the power of this small elite.
How do you think that the top one percent got to where they are?
Interview quote (Sonia)
I mean, I think it’s a combination of inheritance. Hard work, creativity, good business skills, good investments. But ultimately, because they have workers who worked hard to make them rich. If you think about Jeff Bezos? You know, he’s a wealthy, wealthy man. But a lot of his wealth comes from the fact that his factories and factories full of people who are working their asses off for him and they’re not getting anything other than their hourly paycheck for his wealth. I don’t like the narrative that, you know, they’re all like these evil, greedy people, I think there are probably many of them are probably incredibly generous and donate to charities and do a lot of great things. But ultimately they are making- there is an income disparity between the very rich and the very poor. And the very poor are the ones who are working for them. The middle class, working class, middle class or working for them. They should get more of a percentage of what is being earned at the top.
Interview quote (Blair):
The working class in my mind is what makes up the majority of the population and then I look at it and I’d think that the upper class makes up the majority of the opinions and the rules and the guideline and you know social media and I think that’s just wrong, its just disappointing that they get to make all the decisions and they have a very very different outlook and not to say that I would rather have the poor or the middle classes make all the rule but if I gave anyone the power to decide those kind of things I would say the working class because they kinds make everything run.
Many 1500 stories respondents can recognize there there is a small elite holding most of the economic resources, and a big gap between that group and everyone else. Even though they can make many gradations among that “everyone else” they nonetheless recognize that those lines are much blurrier than the hard and fast line between the vast majority of Americans and that wealthy elite. Mike Savage and his colleagues (2015, p. 1016) believe that we cannot escape inequality in the study of class, and that’s why the traditional collar line, for example–white collar and blue collar–is maybe no longer the most relevant way of viewing class divides. The concepts of working class and middle class have been at the center of sociological research on class for decades. But in the U.S. in 2020, perhaps those distinctions have lost some of their power. It is clear from the 1500 Stories interviews that “the collar line” is barely present in how respondents think about class boundaries. Listen to a sampling of how folks answered the question, “What do you see as the different between the middle class and the working class?”
Interview quote (anonymous):
Wow I thought the middle class was the working class.
Interview quote (anonymous:
The difference between the middle class and the working class. Well, uh the middle class works. Like, what? The middle class is still working
Nothing, I mean I think the middle class and the working class are synonymous.
I feel like middle class and working class are same
SEE. I don’t feel that there’s a difference. You know you work for me that automatically you know you’re middle class.
What do I see different between the middle class and the working class? Well isn’t the middle class considered part of the working class?
Um yeah, I’m not even sure of that because I don’t know, I think a lot of times I see those as being the same I think.
I don’t see a difference between middle and working class. They’re all the same to me. If you’re working, you’re pretty much in the middle class. When you say higher class, that means um… some may have… may not be working because they have either an inheritance and they are probably have business that people are working for them.
I think is the same. Middle class are the ones who works for the upper class. Well the rich live however they want, and the underclass have to follow the rules of the wealthy. We have to work and the people here depend on work. People like you and I are working and kind of live paycheck to paycheck.
So when I think of class and things like that, yeah, there are rich people and there are very, very poor people, homeless people in the streets just everywhere and then there’s working class people. They get up everyday, got to go to work, and it’s a part of life.
It’s hard to tell from these responses whether there is no such thing as middle class or whether it is workingclassness as an identity that has largely disappeared from American life. British sociologists Joseph Gerteis and Mike Savage’s (1998) have observed that, especially compared to the U.K., the language of class in the U.S. is one of middle-classness rather than working-classness. And certainly the two previous episodes of 1500 Stories made a case for why the middle class label is appealing to so many Americans. But I think that the participants here who see the middle class and the working class as synonymous are also recognizing that those class positions are more similar economically than different, especially in reference to that powerful elite at the top where so much income and wealth is concentrated. 1500 Stories respondents recognize that fundamental division between the wealthy few and everyone else, between the 1% and the 99% as the Occupy Wall Street movement highlighted. Nationally representative public opinion polls in the U.S. suggest that 1500 Stories participants are not unique in this recognition. 2020 Pew Reserch Center data (Igielnik 2020) found that, while there are partisan divides, most Americans recognize that the economic system favors elites. Pew found that “wide majorities of Americans also say politicians, large corporations and people who are wealthy have too much power and influence in today’s economy.” This finding is relatively consistent across income groups, and is up from 2018 (Dunn 2018) and 2016 (Fingerhut 2016). And indeed we should be worried about income and wealth concentration in the hands of a few. Such stark economic inequality is deeply consequential for the United States. Lots of social research has piled up to demonstrate that deep economic inequality diminishes economic growth (Bernstein 2013; Dabla-Norris 2015), weakens social bonds and wellbeing (Pickett & Wilkinson 2011), leads to political polarization (Voorhels, McCarty & Shor 2015), and undermines democracy (Gilens & Page 2014; Krugman 2014). And we only have to look around to see those outcomes everywhere around us. But perhaps there is reason to hope in the fact that so many 1500 Stories participants recognize that most of us are in the same boat.
Two teachers, who often are in a position to interact with people in very different economic situations, both reflected on how tough most people have it and how hard they have to work to keep that boat afloat. Shannon, whom you’ll hear first, is a teacher who has worked with wealthy children at a private school and low income children at a public school. Fatima works as a paraeducator in special education at a high school.
What do you see as the difference between the middle class and the working class?
Interview quote (Shannon):
I honestly don’t see a difference. Um, I think that there used to be a difference where the working class was more the lower class, but just like where the world is at now and looking at it from an economic perspective. There’s really just from what I see the upper class and lower class because if you’re not in the upper class, those are the people that are working all the time and picking up extra shifts and paying their bells and doing all that stuff. Like everybody that I talk to is taking out student loans and having to pay their bills and they can’t have kids because they’re paying stuff back and doing all that stuff.
Interview quote (Fatima):
I think I would fall under middle class but I don’t even know if middle class exists right now. I feel like we’re all busting our ass in the same way or we’re all struggling the same way so I don’t know.
If Shannon and Fatima can recognize that so many of us are struggling the same way, then maybe there is the potential for Americans to unite across so many of the other things that separate us. And we need that unity. Because it will take solidarity and focused collective action to bring about social policies that will reduce economic inequality and revitalize democracy in the U.S.
A friend of mine who listened to an early version of this episode told me afterwards that it was scary, and sad. She said she felt bummed out. Welcome to sociology! 🙂 This is why I sometimes joke that my day job as a sociology teacher is to deliver the bad news. I admit I was a little surprised by her reaction. But I think that’s because of how immersed I am in this kind of information. I have been studying inequality for decades, and working to reduce it for almost as long. But of course, inequality IS scary, and sad. There is so much suffering underlying the statistics. And of course, resilience, too. My friend wondered what hope I could offer listeners who felt overwhelmed by the heartache of the stories in these episodes.
And there is hope–when we ACT on our heartache. When I wrap up my day job teaching sociology, I turn to my work as a community organizer. I know first hand that heartache can be transformed into action. On the national level, you can join the work of groups like United for a Fair Economy. Or groups like the Center for Responsive Politics and the Center for Public Integrity working on campaign finance reform so that our elected officials aren’t incentivized to make policies that benefit only their wealthy donors. It’s even better to plug in to the good work already happening wherever you are. I guarantee you that everywhere, across the U.S. no matter where you live, there are people working to reduce economic inequality.
Volunteers are feeding the hungry and sheltering the unhoused. Workers are uniting to fight for higher wages, better health care and dignity on the job. Renters are fighting for stronger tenant protections. People with privilege are working in solidarity with their more vulnerable neighbors. Community organizers are reminding ordinary people that we in fact can make the world a better place and solve the problems that plague us. Organizers remind us that democracy starts at the local level. That when we come together we can build power. Labor organizer and sociologist Jane McAlevey believes that real change is possible when we raise our expectations–expectations about the kinds of living and working conditions everyone deserves AND expectations about what WE are capable of.
If YOU are struggling economically, know that you are not alone and that when you join your will and your hands with others working to make our economy more fair, real change happens. There is a classic book in sociology by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward called Poor People’s Movements that shares case after case of ordinary people reducing economic inequality in real and tangible ways through their solidarity in action. And if you are someone with economic privilege, don’t deny it or feel ashamed. That doesn’t help anyone. Use that privilege in solidarity to make sure that everyone has access to the basics they need to be safe and secure and whole.
And finally, I founded 1500 Stories because I believe in the magic of deep listening. At the end of each of my Introduction to Sociology classes, I invite students to take on what for me is one of the key commitments of a sociologist. I invite them to move *towards* the suffering of others rather than away. 1500 Stories is one such invitation. We need both to share our stories with one another, to be vulnerable and honest, and also to LISTEN to the stories of people very different than us. To listen and not turn away. To listen and let it soften our hearts and sharpen our desire to take action.
Music cue: 1500 Stories outro theme
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.