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Misplaced Pride: Most of the "Middle Class" Is Actually Working Class

June 14, 2019

If we look at these charts, it looks like only the top 10%, or perhaps the top 20% at best, might qualify as "middle class" by the metrics described below.

The conventional definition of working class is based on income and education: the working class household earns between $30,000 and $69,000 annually, and the highest education credential in the household is a two-year community college degree or trade certification.

The definition of the middle class is also based on on income and education, but adds financial security as a metric: the middle class household earns $80,000 or more, holds 4-year college diplomas or graduate degrees, owns a home, has a 401K retirement account and so on.

(My own definition is much more rigorous, as I reckon "middle class" today should have the same basic assets as the "middle class" held 40 years ago: What Does It Take To Be Middle Class? (December 5, 2013.)

But in some key ways, income and education are misleading metrics: the key attributes that actually define the working class are:

1. Stagnant incomes: incomes that over time barely keep up with real-world inflation or even lose purchasing power.

2. Income insecurity: wages, benefits and pensions are not as guaranteed as advertised.

3. Not enough ownership of financial capital to be meaningful. Financial capital excludes household items, vehicles, etc. Financial capital includes stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit, ownership of a profitable business, equity in real estate, precious metals, bitcoin, etc.

By meaningful I mean enough to:

-- augment Social Security benefits in a way that greatly improves the household's lifestyle and retirement options

-- equity that is significant enough to fund college educations so one's children do not have to become debt-serfs to attend college

-- enough capital to fund (or help with) a down payment for a house, i.e. inheritable wealth that transforms the children's lives while the parents are still alive

-- income from capital, i.e. income isn't dependent on a government agency or government transfer.

How many U.S. households qualify to be middle class if that means:

-- the household income has outpaced real-world inflation over the past 20 years

-- the household's financial capital/assets have grown to become meaningful (as defined above) in the past 20 years

-- the household doesn't depend on government transfers for much of its income / spending

-- the household income and wealth are not dependent on financial bubbles, corporate guarantees, local government pensions on the verge of insolvency, etc.

While tens of millions of households qualify as "middle class" based on college diplomas and income, far fewer qualify when wealth and financial security are the key metrics. Plenty of households earn well in excess of $100,000 annually, but their financial status is as precarious and threadbare as any working class household.

They don't own enough assets or capital to move the needle, and what they do own is generally dependent on financial bubbles or speculative gambles.

Feeling like we belong to the "middle class" because we have a college diploma and make a good income offers up a false sense of pride and progress. If we're realistic about the financial wealth and security of "middle class" households, most qualify as working class: stagnant incomes, precarious financial circumstances, very little meaningful wealth and even less meaningful wealth that isn't dependent on the bubble du jour or promises that might not be kept.

If we look at these charts, it looks like only the top 10%, or perhaps the top 20% at best, might qualify as "middle class" by the metrics described above.

What sort of society do we have if the bottom 20% of households are poor, the next 60% are working class/precariat and only the top 20% (at best) have any of the core attributes of "middle class" financial security and wealth?

If we take off our rose-colored glasses, we have a much more stratified economy and society than we might like to believe: there's the top 1%, the next 4% "upper middle class," the next 10% "middle class," the next 65% working class, and the bottom 20% poor, those largely dependent on government transfers.

The "middle" has eroded away, leaving the top 15% who are doing very well in the status quo and the bottom 85% who are struggling to maintain a meaningful sense of prosperity and progress.

Personally, I'm proud to be working class in terms of my skillsets and values. Labels mean nothing. What counts is having skills, drive, agency, curiosity, frugality, integrity, self-discipline and kindness. Those forms of wealth cannot be taken from you when the bubble du jour pops and all the phantom "wealth" vanishes like mist in Death Valley.


Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 ebook, $12 print, $13.08 audiobook): Read the first section for free in PDF format.


My new mystery The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake is a ridiculously affordable $1.29 (Kindle) or $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

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(Kindle ebook $6.95, print $12, $13.08 audiobook)

America teeters on the precipice: our government is now captive to special interests and big money, twin cancers that threaten our democracy. This accelerating crisis is exacerbated by a toxic social media-fueled tribalism that has replaced “what do you think?” with “which side are you on?”

Our crisis isn’t just political—it’s structural: as the pace of change explodes from gradual to non-linear, the organizations that dominate our economy—centralized corporations and government—become destined to fail. We see this failure in both the soaring inequality that has hollowed out the American Dream as well as in the rising tide of social and political disunity.

To prevent the fall of our democratic republic, we must transform our economy and society from the ground up. As we enter a new era of rapid, unprecedented tumult, it is we citizens who will need to save our democracy. For our political and financial elites will cling to their centralized power, doing more of what’s failed, even as civil society unravels.

All is not lost--yet. Our way forward starts with understanding the fatal flaws of our brittle, self-serving status quo and embracing this basic truth: better options are available if we’re willing to explore.

To pathfind our way to a better destiny, we must create new localized structures optimized for resilience and adaptability—a flexible, decentralized, sustainable, democratic, opportunity-for-all nation.

Read the first section for free in PDF format.

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic (ebook $6.95, print $12)



Recent entries:

Misplaced Pride: Most of the "Middle Class" Is Actually Working Class June 14, 2019

The Self-Destructive Trajectory of Overly Successful Empires June 12, 2019

A Stock Market Crash Scenario June 10, 2019

What Would It Take to Spark a Rural/Small-Town Revival? June 7, 2019

Is the Tech Bubble Bursting? June 5, 2019

A Quiet Revolution Is Brewing June 3, 2019

Why Being a Politician Is No Longer Fun May 30, 2019

Lesson of the S-Curve: Doing More of What's Failed Will Fail Spectacularly May 29, 2019

Forget "Money": What Will Matter Are Water, Energy, Soil and Food--and a Shared National Purpose May 27, 2019

Superbugs and the Ultimate Economic Weapon: Food May 24, 2019

China's Insurmountable Global Weakness: Its Currency May 23, 2019

Technology Is Not Just Disruptive, It's Disastrously Deflationary May 22, 2019

Two Intertwined Dynamics Are Transforming the Economy: Technology and Financialization May 21, 2019


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"There is no security on this earth; there is only opportunity."
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"History doesn't have a reverse gear." (CHS, 12/22/15)

Smith's Law of Conservation of Risk: Every sustained action has more than one consequence. Some consequences will appear positive for a time before revealing their destructive nature. Some consequences will be intended, some will not. Some will be foreseeable, some will not. Some will be controllable, some will not. Those that are unforeseen and uncontrollable will trigger waves of other unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences. (July 8, 2014)(thanks to Lew G. for retitling the idea.)

Smith's Neofeudalism Principle #1: If the citizenry cannot replace a kleptocratic authoritarian government and/or limit the power of the financial Aristocracy at the ballot box, the nation is a democracy in name only.

The Smith Corollary to Metcalfe's Law (The Network Effect): the value of the network is created not just by the number of connected devices/users but by the value of the information and knowledge shared by users in sub-networks and in the entire network. (CHS, 4/6/16)

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