Social Question

wundayatta's avatar

What is the importance of the middle class?

Asked by wundayatta (58638points) November 16th, 2011

Why is income inequality a problem? There are more really rich now, and there are more poor, and this is a trend that has been moving steadily since 1970. So the middle class is shrinking in terms of numbers.

How is this a problem for the middle class? Does a shrinking middle class cause a cultural shift? Does it change attitudes? Tastes? Styles? What does it do to the zeitgeist? What’s so important about the middle class?

Obviously this is a problem for those sinking into poverty, but I’m wondering if there is any problem for the middle class—if having fewer members makes a difference to them.

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

23 Answers

YoBob's avatar

It is the middle class that for the most part creates the demand that drives the mainstream segments of our economy. Sure, the rich can afford to by high end sports cars, luxury yachts, and other high price tag items. However, those items represent a pretty small part of the economy when compared to the things that all of us regular folks purchase.

No jobs/income for the middle class translates directly to no disposable income with which to purchase the goods and services that make up the lions share of our economy.

tom_g's avatar

@wundayatta: “but I’m wondering if there is any problem for the middle class—if having fewer members makes a difference to them”

I’m under the impression that nearly everyone thinks of themselves as “middle class”, so maybe they are not able to sense a change. I live in an “middle-class” town in MA (median family income ~$140k). The last town I lived in considered themselves “middle-class” (median family income ~$60k). I have friends who live in shitsville and make $20k/yr who think they are “middle-class”.

blueiiznh's avatar

We don’t live under a “Class System” in the US.
Even if you think there is one, the lines are pretty blurred.

CaptainHarley's avatar

In terms of purchasing power, the middle class generates far more demand for goods and services than does the “upper class.” In addition, it serves as a sort of “buffer” between upper and lower classes. It contains most of those who are the technicians and professionals who keep the engines of society running. Plus it holds a set of cultural norms that involve things like hard work, dedication, compassion and honor which are largely lacking in the “upper class,” but without which life in society would be stark indeed.

wundayatta's avatar

@blueiiznh So if there are no classes in the US, what the hell is everyone talking about when they talk about the middle class? I mean, how do you make sense out of it when so many people refer to the middle class all the time?

Paradox25's avatar

Without some type of ‘lower’ class there would be no wealthy people.

Blueroses's avatar

As @tom_g said, the definition shifts by community. I live in West Shitsville, which means I’m better off than the people in Shitsville-proper and looking up at the people in Shitsville Heights. In @tom_g‘s area, the Heights folk would be lower class.

Middle class means (I guess), paying a mortgage that’s not in default, having cable TV, internet, a vehicle, self-paid insurance and enough income to keep the utility bills current with enough left over to eat at a restaurant once or twice a month (after contributing to a retirement fund). By that measure, I don’t see the middle class shrinking as much as I see the higher class falling down the ladder.

JLeslie's avatar

@blueiiznh I completely disagree. I think the socio-economic classes are what tends to divide people into groups in America, more than race, religion, or national origin. In America it is taboo to talk about class in my opinion. Sure politicians throw around the terms middle class, poor, elite, rich, but no one really discusses the differences, the psychographic differences except for sociologists and people who utilize the data for marketing and business in general.

@wundayatta I think the middle class is what revs the economy more than anything. Your question was what will it mean to me if I am still middle class, but the middle class shrinks, if I understand correctly. Well, first of all, since social class seems to bond people, I might have a smaller group with the same ability to do social things with, to relate to. Socio-economics includes more than just income, it includes education level, what people like to do in their free time, probably even average age to get married have kids (I am not sure of those last two) but it affects so much that people don’t realize.

Also, I have a hard enough time seeing people poor and without basic needs met. Worse they many times live in unsafe parts of cities, some are like warzones, I find that to be a disgrace, I certainly don’t want that to grow larger in my country. It is altruistic and selfish from my part. And, watching the very wealthy makes me sick sometimes too. Don’t get me wrong, I think people who earn a lot of money generally work extremely hard, sacrifice, and plan. But, I don’t feel good at all with such a large gap between the workers making the lowest amount of money in a company and the highest earners. In America the spread is larger than other countries. So, for my own calm, my own ability to feel good about the country I live in and the average living standard, I like to have a very large middle class.

flutherother's avatar

The Middle Class is diminishing in numbers because economic conditions are pushing many of them into poverty. A few escape from the middle classes by becoming more wealthy but the overall effect is a polarisation of society into the few who are very wealthy and the great majority who are very poor. The middle class level in society has been a route whereby the poor can escape their poverty through hard work, study and ambition. If the middle class is reduced, the poor will feel trapped in their poverty and society will become unstable and ready for revolution.

The problem for those in the middle class is fear, fear that they will lose their jobs or be forced into less well paid employment and fear that they will not be able to pay their bills or keep up their mortgage. Fear in short that they may cease to be middle class and end up poor.

For the poor, hopes that they might escape their poverty, or that their children might do better will turn into hopelessness if there is no middle class for them to escape to.

Sunny2's avatar

@tom_g If there’s a top and a bottom, the middle boundaries could be further or closer to the middle line. It’s an arbitrary choice of where to draw the lines. Perspective and perception also play a part in thinking about where you rank. Some people don’t want to be considered upper or lower for the same reason: embarrassment and lack of knowledge of thee actual figures. Hence, “Oh, I’m in the middle.”

CaptainHarley's avatar

What I have always had trouble understanding at other than a sort of esoteric, intellectual level, is why in God’s name anyone would want more money than they actually need. Sure, put a little asside for emergencies, but some people are just ridiculous! It’s rumored that the Rothschilds control over 100 TRILLION dollars! WTF, over??

dannyc's avatar

For the rich, the middle class makes them rich. For the poor, the middle class, keeps them alive and sustainable and hoping to be middle class. For the middle class, they just sort of float, enjoying being the engine of the boat, pushing it forward. Take the engine away and the boat sinks.

blueiiznh's avatar

@JLeslie please define what delineates the classes in the US. I am interested in what the real differences are and how does one know which class they are in.

JLeslie's avatar

When I think or discuss social class I usually am actually thinking socioeconomic status which includes not only income but education level and within each class we see different psychographic generalizations that can me made (attitudes, interests, activities and lifestyles). Of course these are generalizations and there can be crossover.

Wikipedia has a table with a few different ways to define social class. I’m going to look for generalizations of socioeconomic and pschographics to link on a later post. My computer is giving me trouble, and I keep losing what I have written, so better I do it on a separate post.

The psychographic information is important because it goes to what people have in common and what they do in sa time. Two families might both make $75k a year. The one with the higher education might be more likely on their free time to play tennis, travel out of the country, art museum, or see a play; while the other family might be more likely to fish, go to a baseball game, have an average of 3 kids, not own a passport, etc. I totally made those up, and of course, again, there is crossover. The more money people have, the more they can afford to do expensive activities like skiing, golf, and international travel.

At the same time an educated $75k family might do the same activities as a $150k family, because money is not everything, it’s complicated. And of course formal education level is not everything. People can be extremely knowledgeable and exposed to and interested in the same things without a formal education. My inlaws have 5th and 8th grade educations, they have travelled all over Europe, but they also were part of the upper class in their country, Mexico, because they made good money and the classes, especially then, were basically you were upper class or lower, with a very small middle class.

JLeslie's avatar

Just to add, my Hispanic friends, and I have a lot, are very similar to me. My husband always says he isn’t really Hispanic in how Hispanics are generalized in America, or how they are marketed to. In some ways he is right, because in America only about 15% of Hispanics have a college degree and the median household income is $35k I think? Which is not that bad really. Anyway, my husband has a masters is a VP in his company, and really he has much more in common with other people working in corporate life than say a Hispanic man who works as a laborer in farming or construction. Now, don’t get me wrong, my husband seriously thinks about going to school to become a mechanic, because he loves cars, and loves creating things with his hands. It is not that one is better than the other, it is just a discussion of habits, activities, and lifestyle. Anyway, my black, Hispanic, and white friends are fairly similar in their view of the world and how we spend our time because we are in similar socioeconomic classes. In my opinion.

JLeslie's avatar

My last two posts were to answer @blueiiznh question.

ratboy's avatar

The income distribution problem in the USA is not that there are more rich people, but that the few that are rich control a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth. The power that wealth confers has also become concentrated in that small minority. In a nation in which a corporation is a person, the shift in wealth and power means that what was once a democracy has become an oligarchy. The current economic situation is an illustration of the consequences. The financial sector demolished the economy and profited greatly from doing so, yet there is no significant government action to prevent a recurrence.

CaptainHarley's avatar

It all comes down to learning to not want. If I have a roof over my head, clothes to wear, food to eat, some way to occupy my mind, and at least one person loves me, my life is damned near perfect. Do I WANT other things? Of course. But I actually NEED very little. And I’ll not walk on anyone else to get either.

JLeslie's avatar

@CaptainHarley But, @ratboy makes a good point that money is power in our country at least to some extent. So, does it concern you that you may not personally need more, but that the people who hold the super wealth have a certain amount of control over our governent and in turn our lives? Maybe there is some sort of correlation between wealth distrobution and the government becoming so divided and so adversarial.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Oh, I’d bet my azz that’s the case. “Divide and conquer” is one of the oldest and most effective military AND political techniques. And the hell of it is that most of the conflicts that seem to mean so much to politicians so seldom amount to anything more than a hill of beans!

“Provide the people with enough distractions and they won’t notice who is in charge and how much they steal” seems to be their by-word.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I want to mention I didn’t read other answers (class discussions are triggering to me as are many of the questions in your details so it’s best to avoid). I think the point of the middle class is include more and more people by definitional change here and there so that people think ‘they’re doing well’ and not question actual inequality.

CaptainHarley's avatar


I wouldn’t think so. It’s way too easy to verify.

Answer this question




to answer.
Your answer will be saved while you login or join.

Have a question? Ask Fluther!

What do you know more about?
Knowledge Networking @ Fluther