Life in the middle class

By Morf Morford

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

America used to be the ultimate middle-class culture.

With affordable homes, ample economic opportunities and expanding higher education opportunities for every new generation, the first principle of life in America was that every generation would be better off than the one before.

And it was true. At least it used to be true.

Not only do fewer and fewer people, especially young people, believe it, the entire concept of the middle-class seems to be shifting, if not collapsing in front of our eyes.

I’ve seen article after article (and several books) on the intrusions of both the lower and higher classes on the seemingly invulnerable middle-class.

The most recent is this one:

As the article above puts it “each new generation in the OECD’s aggregate average, the middle class is getting smaller, the upper class is stable, and the lower class is expanding.”

If you study history, even a little bit, the one striking feature of history is that nothing sits still. In economic history, that is even more true.

The cost of living rises and falls, technologies emerge – and become obsolete, taxes, labor and market trends shift like crazy winds – consuming, expanding and moving on.

The wealthy are relatively insulated from these shifts, the poor are subject to them – and for them, even when times are “good” they are not very good.

It is the middle class that shifts with the economy, buying homes, filling schools and paying taxes.

We, in the United States like to imagine that we are (or were) a “class-less” society, with opportunity based on merit and good work, with few privileged and few desperate, our economy – and our economic assumptions – were based on a stable producing and consuming middle-class.

And since World War II that has been the case. If you look at income and tax charts from those years until now, you something very striking; the middle class – and middle-class pay – grew steadily – dramatically even – from about 1947 to 1980. And then it didn’t.

From 1980 until now, the middle-class has be consistently shrinking.

There are a variety of reasons, from emerging technologies to rising costs of housing and higher education, but the result – and the impacts are the same.

A large and stable middle-class is the foundation of any economy.

The middle-class is the practical expression of saving, spending and investing. Middle-class people pay taxes, support schools, local businesses and provide professional workers across every field.

It is in every economy’s best interest to have a strong and stable middle class.

Too many poor people drain an economy and portends revolution. Too many rich people tilt the economy toward a class divide of haves and have-nots.

Oddly enough, the upper and lower classes have much in common.

Several years ago I was teaching a class at a local college and we were discussing Ruby Payne’s study of “The hidden rules of class” (

Her premise is very simple; each class has its own unspoken cues, assumptions and habits.

If you are in a group (and we all are), you understand the hidden rules of that group and the danger is you take for granted that they are for everyone and everyone sees the basics of life, like money, relationships or even food, the same way.

But we clearly do not.

One time I had a class and as we were discussing these “hidden rules” one of my students, clearly from an impoverished background, exclaimed “I get poor people, and I get rich people, but I absolutely don’t get middle-class people.”

He went on to expand on how he and his peers did various (mostly under-the-table, if not blatantly illegal) activities to make money, and his peers – and the wealthy – flaunted their wealth (and conquests) as the wealthy did, but the middle class lived in boring neighborhoods, with jobs they hated and went on cruises and lived entirely boring and predictable lives – not at all like the adventurous lives of either the wealthy with their exotic vacations or the poor living hand-to-mouth evading police, exes, debt-collectors and eviction.

He had several friends he had seen on the “Cops” television series being pursued by police. As with the wealthy, among the poor, there is no such thing as “bad publicity.”

The wealthy and the poor lived lives of action. The middle-class was tedious and soul-crushing.

Life in the middle-class, he believed, was for suckers.

Get rich or die tryin’ was the life motto of everyone he knew. Gold and glory went to those who could grab them. The quest for diamonds and conquest was vastly more interesting than working the daily grind.

Fame and glitz, for him and his cohort were the goals. Looking or acting rich was the only vision on the horizon.

And if they were not acquired, what could be a better ending than going down in flames – or even in a headline-grabbing shoot-out?

A staid middle-class lifestyle was never the goal.

Staying in the same job, house or relationship was not for him.

Or for the wealthy.

Marriage, it turns out, is for the middle-class. The poor and the wealthy, for better or worse, share a common view of home life.

Rich men in particular, go for a younger model every decade or so.

Marriage is not political, or even moral, it is defined by class.

The ultimate mark of life in the middle-class is marriage and a mortgage. Both imply and rely on stability in employment and in the relationship.

From Rush Limbaugh, to Donald Trump to a multitude of celebrities and CEOs from Jeff Bezos to Mick Jagger, a spouse is an accessory; the younger and more beautiful the better.

Divorce is ruinous to the middle-class. To the poor or wealthy, it is a rite of passage – and often an upgrade.

The same with debt.

Massive debt is the ultimate tax write-off. With enough debt, you could get out of paying taxes for years – if not decades.

The poor and the wealthy had intricate networks of evasion of taxes or any official oversight.

The Middle-class, being literally in the middle, was always the butt of jokes for the other classes – and often the source of livelihood of them both.

Who, after all, paid the taxes that provided police, highways and even the airports that everyone used?

The poor barely pay taxes and the wealthy have tax-havens and deductions to minimize their share. Evading taxes is “the smart thing to do.”

A recent viral social media question is “What’s classy if you’re rich but trashy if you’re poor?”

In other words, what is something that, if done by wealthy people is trendy and attractive, but if done by poor people is tacky if not offensive?

This is exactly the same behavior.

It turns out that there are many entire categories where this is true.

Wearing ragged clothes is one. Ever see someone in tattered, even dirty clothes, at an upscale jewelry store or Ivy League campus?

Here are few others;

Having other people raise your kids.

Asking for money. When you’re poor it’s begging, when you’re rich, it’s a fundraiser.

Moving to a foreign country.

Multiple cars in front of your house.

Speaking two languages.

Marrying a second cousin.

Getting money from the government.

Having a wedding in your yard.

Police escorts.

Substance abuse. Rich people are ‘troubled’ whereas poor people are just junkies.

Living at a hotel.

Wearing hoodies/sweats/gym wear to work. Especially in Tech.

Not cleaning your own house.

And my personal favorite, after all, who needs a “fixer” more than a wealthy person and a poor person?

Having a lawyer’s business card in your wallet.

It does make life in the middle-class sound kind of boring doesn’t it?


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