In the course of writing Automating Inequality, I’ve come to realize that how I talk about class in America can be counterintuitive for some readers. I thought it would be useful to start a conversation about class here before the book drops January 16. This might take a couple of posts…so let’s start with what seems like a simple question:
What do we call the different economic classes in America?
In everyday life, we tend to use three terms to describe class in the US: lower class (or low-income), middle class, and upper class (or wealthy or elite).
As categories, these labels are all but meaningless. They are inherently value-laden, suggesting a hierarchy of moral worth that tracks with income. They are also analytically vacuous. Nearly everyone, given such limited options, will choose “middle” when asked what class they belong to. This creates social groupings that share little in the way of culture, experience, challenges, or resources.
For example, in July 2016, NPR characterized the middle class as those households “making an annual income between 66 and 200 percent of the median U.S. household income.” It’s impossible to understand why they chose these specific cutoff points: why not 75% to 225%? Or 82% to 157%?
NPR’s middle income bracket is inexplicably expansive. A single individual in their “middle class” could make anywhere between $24,000 and $73,000 a year, and a family of three anywhere between $42,000 and $126,000. It’s hard to imagine people at each end of this spectrum having much in common.
And why use income, the amount each household brings in from wages and investments, to define class in this age of out-of-control debt? It might be better to use wealth instead: the amount you own minus the amount your owe.
But there are other models. One that I find particularly useful comes from Betsey Leondar-Wright’s fantastic 2005 book about class and community organizing, Class Matters. Leondar-Wright points out that when you give Americans four options for economic self-identification instead of three, they split into more meaningful groups. Throughout Automating Inequality, I use her class labels: poor/low-income, working class, professional middle class, and owning class. I make one modification. Because poverty is more than a lack of income, I avoid the term “low-income.”
Instead, I simply use poor, which I see as a political and cultural identity. Like the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, I believe that anyone who lacks even one of the economic human rights promised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–including health care, housing, living-wage jobs, and quality education–can meaningfully identify as poor.
The General Social Survey, produced by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, confirms that people intuitively identify with Leondar-Wright’s class categories. The survey has offered “working class” as a way to name class identity since it began collecting data in 1972. In 2016, 10% of survey respondents self-identified as lower class, 47% as working class, 40% as middle class, and 3% as upper class. These proportions have stayed remarkably consistent over time. In the last 45 years, there has been an increase from 6.5% to 10% of those who consider themselves lower class, and a decrease from 44% to 40% of those who see themselves as middle class, shifts that align neatly with macroeconomic trends.
Actually, when I talk about those most impacted by high-tech tools in public and social services, I tend to use the phrase “poor and working-class people,” suggesting that there is shared experience and the potential for solidarity across the poor/working class line. More on that, the role of race in class identity, and what I mean when I denote a “Zone of Violence” on the class pyramid, coming soon!