Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Are we middle class?

Not really. We only think we are. If we don’t qualify for food stamps or discounted housing, or the poverty credit that our state or city provides, we believe we are middle class. But are we?

If we are insolvent, are we middle class? What is “insolvent,” anyway? It’s the state of negative net worth. Many if not most Americans with a mortgage in its early years are insolvent, because they do not have the funds to pay off that mortgage on the spot. Many more Americans also have car loans that, again, they would find it impossible to pay off instantly.

Then why do we think we are middle class? Hundreds of years ago, in western Europe, there were laws that kept wealthy middle class people from wearing the bright and luxurious clothes worn by the nobility. The middle class was frozen as the middle class, or so it seemed, because they had to wear a uniform, usually black. In America today, with no such laws, the only way to define someone as middle class is through tokens.

Middle-class people aspire to houses, cars, and education, tokens of being middle class today. People who define themselves as middle class are determined to secure the outward show of being middle class even if they don’t have the money to buy it outright. They do it through consistent employment, with allows them to leverage their small net worth to get credit and thus have negative net worth and become insolvent. So they look middle class but they aren't.

Is this a different modus operandi than the working class and the poor use? Yes. They buy for cash because they can’t get credit. To the degree that the working class and the poor have been caught up in middle-class aspirations and tried to get in on the housing and credit booms, we have the subprime mortgage category and the credit cards with immense finance charges, and the payday loan phenomenon. But they are not middle class. Most don’t have or can't keep the tokens of the middle class. Others don't aspire to be middle class. They aspire to be rich, as defined by what they see on television, i.e., a flashy car, jewelry, and fashionable clothes, etc. Not middle class at all.

The true middle class is almost invisible. The solvent middle class is the group that owns homes outright, pays cash for their cars, and has cash saved for their educations. As distinct from the working class or the poor, though, the true middle class can afford nice houses in the suburbs (still the middle class ideal) or discreet town homes. This middle class is what most self-defined middle-class people aspire to be, the group that can afford the tokens. They still live a middle-class life. They just don’t finance it with credit. Or, to put it another way, they aren’t fronting. That’s what the rest of us are doing. Fronting, posing, whatever you call it, even though technically we are insolvent and we are only a few lost paychecks away from having it all collapse on us.

Why bother to define what middle class really is? Because we who self-define as middle class also believe that we must have the tokens of being middle class, and so we go into hock to get them. We believe we are entitled to these tokens, in fact, because a lifetime of fronting, posing, and pretending (while hiding those horrendous credit cards bills and getting repeated home equity loans) has accustomed us to believe we are middle class. But most of us, sadly, are not. If we can lose this mindset that we are middle class and we therefore must have certain possessions, perhaps we can behave with enough fiscal responsibility long enough to actually become middle class for real. Food for thought.

1 comment:

rtb.ink said...

How does this not mean that "middle class" is meaningless?