What is the middle class?

by Andrew Gelman on January 20, 2013 · 8 comments

in Media

I noticed an interesting juxtaposition in two recent NYT articles.

A few days ago, in a news article by Al Baker on “gifted and talented” programs in public schools:

For critics of New York City’s gifted and talented programs, that image crystallizes what they say is a flawed system that reinforces racial separation in the city’s schools and contributes to disparities in achievement.

They contend that gifted admissions standards favor middle-class children, many of them white or Asian, over black and Hispanic children who might have equal promise . . .

Urban districts were seen as using the programs to help prevent white flight from the schools, in essence offering a system within the system that was white-majority and focused on achievement. . . . “Certainly there was concern with keeping middle-class families involved in public schools, and to the extent that we use tests to select kids for gifted programs, that tends to skew the programs toward children from wealthier, white families.”

Today, in an opinion article by Joseph Stiglitz about the economy:

Our middle class is too weak to support the consumer spending that has historically driven our economic growth. While the top 1 percent of income earners took home 93 percent of the growth in incomes in 2010, the households in the middle — who are most likely to spend their incomes rather than save them and who are, in a sense, the true job creators — have lower household incomes, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1996. . . . the hollowing out of the middle class since the 1970s, a phenomenon interrupted only briefly in the 1990s . . . the weakness of the middle class is holding back tax receipts . . .

It’s interesting how in Baker’s article, the “middle class” = wealthy and comfortable, while in Stiglitz’s article, the “middle class” are struggling and are being “hollowed out.” In one case, the middle class are the bad guys and in the other case they’re the good guys.


HarryDoyle January 20, 2013 at 5:17 pm

Relative to inner-city families, middle class families are indeed “wealthy and comfrotable.” While relative to the top 1 percent growth of income over the past few decades, middle class families are indeed “struggling and being hollowed out.” And in neither case are the middle class cast as good or bad guys.

RobC January 20, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Meanwhile the Times is exercised that some of those who have been castigated as rich are actually just part of the struggling middle class–in Manhattan, that is. Those in the outer boroughs get no sympathy.

zbicyclist February 5, 2013 at 1:14 am

The Times and the Wall Street Journal seem locked in an endless attempt to create the most sympathy for people with high incomes who are determined to live in Manhattan, regardless.

Chaz January 20, 2013 at 9:06 pm

You’d get a very different answer to your headline question in the UK where class is correlated to but not dependent on income or wealth but is about culture. In the US it seems the rhetoric around class makes it equivalent to income and the 10th to 90th percentile are definitionally middle class which is such a large and amorphous group that you can fit any convenient narrative around it.

Joe January 20, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Elizabeth Warren feels your pain.

Nameless January 27, 2013 at 7:18 pm

I’d think that Stiglitz should know better, but evidently he doesn’t. Baker uses the words “middle class” correctly from the sociological point of view. Stiglitz does not. He tries to use them to describe a person near the median on the income distribution scale, and even gives a specific example (a male worker with annual income of $32,986.) This is not middle class, this is more properly called “working class.”

zbicyclist February 5, 2013 at 12:05 am

“The middle class” is a political pundit’s term — available to be used in any context, with any reference, and seeming to have meaning while having little.

It would be quite easy to come up with an operational definition of “the middle class” — and in fact many have done it. But we persist with the shifting rhetorical definitions because we want to engage in games of “ain’t it awful” rather than in constructive dialogue.

Mark Palko February 5, 2013 at 1:29 am

There’s certainly an inconsistency here, but I’m not it’s a question being heroes in one story and villains in another. I’ve noticed that NYT reporters tend to define middle class fairly high. This has been particularly notable in discussions of marginal tax rates but I’ve seen it in quite a few lifestyle articles as well.

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