Politicians trying to woo the ambigiously defined middle class

Amidst an election cycle where all sides want to woo the middle class, several researchers suggest that providing an exact definition of the middle class is difficult:

“You can’t define middle class, but you can ask people, ‘Do you still feel middle class?’ And more and more people don’t,” said Tim Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin…

“The whole attraction of middle class … is it doesn’t mean anything,” said Dennis Gilbert, a sociology professor at Hamilton College who studies class issues. “Middle class means anybody who might vote for you.”…

Still, experts say the term middle class has a cultural connotation that goes beyond the number on your paycheck or tax stub.

Kevin Leicht, director of the Iowa Social Science Research Center at the University of Iowa, said many Americans think of a middle-class life as being one in which you have a stable job, own your own home and occasionally buy something substantial like a new car. You also either went to college or have the aspiration of sending your children to college.

I would disagree with Gilbert and agree with Leicht and Smeeding. When asked, Americans do tend to feel they are middle class, the recent economic crisis notwithstanding. The middle class in America is more of an idea than a clearly-defined category that people move in and out of. Cultural categories can be powerful, perhaps even more so than economic realities.

Recently, the Brookings Institution defined six likely life stages a middle-class person goes through and in 2010, a government task force tied being middle class to six outcomes. It is not impossible to set such criteria for measurement purposes but they do not match up with everyone who would call themselves middle class.

Speaking of politicians looking for middle-class votes, I haven’t seen journalists or scholars discussing how this wooing developed in American political history. How long has this wooing been taking place? Is this primarily a post-World War II phenomenon or does it have a longer history? I wonder if the middle class only matters here because it is in this period of history that politicians think there are a large number of voters to be swayed in this category…

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