One more Social Security quibble: Who is middle class?

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For the first time in the Social Security reform debate there's been some good news. After months of galloping around the country repeatedly linking the idea of "personal accounts" with the program's long-term financial health, President Bush has decided to embrace reality and acknowledge that the two have little or nothing to do with each other.

This isn't exactly an earthshaking admission, mind you. It falls more into the category of, say, Shaquille O'Neal admitting he's never going to be the winning jockey at the Kentucky Derby. The president's own people have been quietly saying private accounts aren't the answer to Social Security's solvency for months.

But let's not quibble. At least Mr. Bush finally concedes the well-known awful truth about this debate: Fixing the program's long-term outlook is going to involve benefit cuts or tax increases or both. That's why Congress didn't exactly stand up and cheer when the president announced his desire to take on the problem.

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Now comes the ugly part - figuring out who gets what taken away. And that means we, as a nation, are running headon into one of our biggest bugaboo questions: Who is the middle class?

Well, you are, of course. And me, while we're at it. The middle class is the backbone of the country - all those hard-working Americans who get up every morning and make this great country of ours strong. That's the politician's answer every four years, and it's wonderful to recite as "America the Beautiful" plays low in the background. But that's not going to cut it this year, because money is actually going to be at stake.

The president, never a big fan of raising taxes in any form, has proposed fixing the long-term problems with Social Security by focusing on cutting benefits - and that means the cuts will have to be deep, of course. Under the formula he's outlined, anyone under 55 and earning more than $20,000 in 2005 would see future benefit cuts.

The president maintains he's protecting the poor, and that the cuts will mostly fall on the rich and those American heroes, the middle class, who again will be asked to save the nation. All of which begs the question: Is someone earning $20,000 a year really middle class?

Well, it depends on whom you ask. Everyone wants to believe they are middle class. For people on the bottom and the top of the wage scale the phrase connotes a certain Regular Joe cachet. But this eagerness to be part of the group has led the definition to be stretched like a bungee cord - used to defend/attack/describe everything from the Earned Income Tax Credit to the estate (death) tax.

The Drum Major Institute, a progressive think tank, has a website called www.themiddleclass.org that places the range for middle class at individuals making between $25,000 and $100,000 a year. Ah yes, there's a group of people bound to run into each other while house-hunting.

And a few weeks back on Bill Maher's show "Real Time," Maryland Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele asked, "You take a man and a woman living in middle America each making $150,000 a year, $300,000 combined income, are they rich?" An interesting question for a Wal-Mart stock clerk to ponder on his coffee break, particularly considering that the top 5 percent of household incomes begins at about $150,000 total.

For the record, the Census Bureau reports the mean annual income in the US in 2003 was about $33,000. And if you really wanted to make an argument about $20,000 being middle class, you probably could. If you break American households into fifths and reason that the second-lowest fifth is the lower-middle class, you would find their lower income limit is $18,000 a year. Voilà!

But are all these people really middle class, or maybe more to the point, are all these "middle-class" people in same the boat? Does the retail worker really have the same ability to plan for the future as the college-educated white-collar office worker?

Over the next few decades as manufacturing jobs continue to disappear, replaced by those in the service sector - which often don't offer good benefits, if they offer them at all - Social Security will be increasingly important for the people on the lower end of what we call middle class. This is probably not the time to be cutting their benefits.

And as Congress and the White House sit down to hammer out the miserable details of Social Security reform - if they're able to agree on the details - that's something that should be in the front of their minds. It might even make them think of things like increasing the income that can be taxed, which currently ends at about $90,000 - or even, gasp, dumping some of the tax cuts they passed in the first few years of this administration.

It's nice that the definition of "middle class" is so elastic, but all that stretching has frayed it nearly to the point of being meaningless. A little more playing with it and it may snap.

Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.

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