Literature and cinema have always loved stories about Cinderellas, princes and paupers, rags-to-riches journeys, and the sharp contrast between posh upstairs and salt-of-the-earth downstairs. To be in the middle – fairly well educated, gainfully employed, modest, generally satisfied with life – is not often the stuff of high drama. But the middle class is the bedrock of democracy. It is where work gets done, families thrive, and a society’s values are established. People from Benjamin Franklin to the current candidates running for president have lauded the middle class as the quintessence of the American dream.
As Mark Trumbull shows in a Monitor cover story (click here), the middle class in the United States isn’t the confident place it once seemed to be. Many who consider themselves part of it feel squeezed and uncertain. They might have the trappings of material culture – smartphones, big-screen TVs, SUVs, and an astounding variety of reasonably priced choices at shops and supermarkets – but they worry about job security, debt, and finances. Perhaps that is because of the trauma they went through during the Great Recession, as the Great Depression traumatized their parents and grandparents.
Of course, the “they” in the middle class is hard to define. Middle-classness is not uniform. A middle-class income in New York City gives you a very different lifestyle than it does in Pocahontas, Ark. Family structure makes a difference, too. A single mom with a middle-class income has to pedal much faster than does a middle-class empty nester. And, of course, every individual’s experience differs. A teacher, a book, an unexpected opportunity, an inner drive – all can alter a life’s trajectory.
People are always moving up and down the ladder. Class lines are porous. Middle class is really more of a state of mind than an economic address. Yes, income and living standards are important. Economic security is not trivial to struggling families and individuals. But being middle class means being solid, hardworking, and community oriented. Walt Whitman sang the praises of a life where all people “have enough – a modest living – and no man is made possessor beyond the sane and beautiful necessities....”
One of the best stories of middle-class success is David McCullough’s excellent book “The Wright Brothers.” Orville and Wilbur came from modest means. Their father, an itinerant minister, did not bring in much income but kept the family fed, stocked the house with books, and encouraged moral behavior. “All the money anyone needs is just enough to prevent one from being a burden on others,” he often said. Which is not an endorsement of complacency or a knock at ambition. It is a recognition of what can be achieved when the minimal standards of living are met and excess is avoided.
The Wright brothers had only high school educations but were intelligent, practical, and resourceful. They were unfazed by either early skepticism or later adulation. Balanced and productive, solidly middle class from a middle-sized city in middle America, they did the work, learned to fly, and changed the world.