Defining middle class in an era of economic uncertainty

Understanding the middle class requires looking not just at resources but also how the middle-class life is lived:

By the 1990s, the world that Mills had documented was coming apart as corporate downsizing and disinvestment upended the neat equation of secure work and praiseworthy home life. Social thinkers writing in that decade, including the sociologist Katherine Newman and the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, followed Mills in charting the social and psychological shape of that in-between class. But they found that loss had replaced dependency as the most conspicuous feeling associated with middling workers’ place in the hierarchy.

Today anguish over lost social standing has, in turn, been replaced by a pervasive sense of insecurity…

Aspiring to stability and respectability today means not only navigating the landscape of eroded and contingent work, but of managing debts. Trying to give children a shot, parents take on financial burdens that can destabilize their own future security.

Class has always been partly about income, but debt is now an equal component of the middle-class story, leading to a central paradox of aspirational lives: Striving for stability and respectability means inhabiting insecurity both socially and psychologically. Economic metrics alone can only tell a shallow story, but at the very least, debt should join income in any attempt at definition.

If this is true, perhaps social class should be accompanied by a different sort of measure. Here are a few options:

  1. Economic security or economic insecurity. Perhaps there would be a certain bar to meet – having a certain amount of savings, the ability to find another job, or something else.
  2. Some measure of anxiety or well-being about current economic conditions.

Two households with similar sets of resources could be quite different on these measures based on the particulars of certain jobs, family situations, debt, etc.

The biggest downsides to such measures could be that they remove the baselines that social class measures often have as well as affect the value judgments made about social class. We know that less income or lower wealth matters; a household with $20,000 of income is going to be different than one with $100,000. (Yes, this could be contextual based on cost of living.) But, if we start including some measures of the lived experience of class, is there a baseline? Similarly, what if financial measures were similar for two groups but one group had a higher level of anxiety or insecurity; would researchers and pundits be quick to judge whether that anxiety is justified?

Of course, if the insecurity/anxiety questions are asked alongside more traditional measures of social class, researchers can look at the relationships and determine what a consistent and valid measure of social class should be.

Indicating social class by having no leaves present on the lawn

Now that blooming dandelions are not a threat and warmer weather and thick green grass is less common, how can the suburbanite indicate his social class through his or her lawn in the fall and keep it a notch above his or her neighbors? No leaves may be present.

Within the next month or so in the Chicago region, leaves will fall at varying rates and cover lawns. These could be leaves from trees in that yard or, given occasional high winds, leaves from several houses away. They could be wet or dry, big or small, green, red, orange, or other shades. And Americans will spend countless hours trying to corral them all, stuff them in bags or bins, and ship them somewhere else.

Why? Because even in the fall, a season that can be good for growing grass, the sanctity of the lawn must be upheld. Even as trees and bushes grow sparse and the flowers that once adorned the property wither, the well-kept lawn is important. Rakes must be employed. Blowers can be even better (at least when the leaves are drier) to efficiently move large amounts. Mowers can be used not only to keep that grass looking uniform but to mulch leaves.

And the best fall lawns, the ones showing the suburbanites of a higher social class or those who care the most about their property (values), will have no visible leaves. They are a blemish and may be removed daily. Carpets of leaves may be pretty in more natural settings but not on the suburban lawn: it must continue to show off the home and its owner until either covered by snow or gone dormant for the winter.

Divorce down, marriage down, telling a full story

Recent sociological work highlights how looking past the initial findings – divorce rates are down in America – reveals a more complicated reality:

In the past 10 years, the percentage of American marriages that end in divorce has fallen, and in a new paper, the University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen quantified the drop-off: Between 2008 and 2016, the divorce rate declined by 18 percent overall…

The point he was making was that people with college degrees are now more likely to get married than those who have no more than a high-school education. And the key to understanding the declining divorce rate, Cherlin says, is that it is “going down some for everybody,” but “the decline has been steepest for the college graduates.”

The reason that’s the case is that college graduates tend to wait longer to get married as they focus on their career. And they tend to have the financial independence to postpone marriage until they’re more confident it will work. This has translated to lower rates of divorce: “If you’re older, you’re more mature … you probably have a better job, and those things make it less likely that you’ll get into arguments with your spouse,” Cherlin says…

Chen connects this trend to the decline of well-paying jobs for those without college degrees, which, he argues, makes it harder to form more stable relationships. Indeed, Cohen writes in his paper that marriage is “an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.” The state of it today is both a reflection of the opportunities unlocked by a college degree and a force that, by allowing couples to pool their incomes, itself widens economic gaps.

It would be interesting to see how many of those who might celebrate the finding that divorce rates are going down also discuss the reasons linked to financial stability, education levels, and inequality.

Take more conservative Christian churches as a possible example. Evangelical Protestants are often proudly in favor of marriage (between a man and a woman). They work hard to provide programs for families as well as classes and sermons about marriage and family life. They would generally be opposed to divorce or at least view it as less than ideal. But, having conversations about how marriage is less attainable for some Americans or the evolving idea that one needs to be financially independent before marrying might be less common. How often do topics of social class and inequality come up from the front in many congregations? Or, discussions could turn to why Americans do not make correct individual choices rather than focusing on social pressures and structures (financial independence, it is more acceptable to cohabit) that influence all Americans (including conservative Christians). Ultimately, the findings may not be that good for evangelicals: divorce is down because Americans are getting married less and cohabiting more. If they want to encourage more marriage, they would have to respond to these larger social forces at work.

Why Americans love suburbs #4: middle-class utopia

If race and ethnicity in the suburbs has often served to keep residents out, the more inclusive message of the American suburbs is this: it is a place where the middle-class can live a good life. Of course, there are issues with this, including numerous exclusive wealthy communities as well as a lack of affordable housing or rental units for those who are not quite middle-class. Yet, the suburban life is held up as both attainable and ideal for the American middle-class.

It wasn’t always this way. Early suburbanites had to have the resources to make it back and forth to the city. This changed with the numerous transportation inventions (railroads, streetcars, electric lines) that steadily brought the costs of traveling in and out of the city down as well as led to the development of more land outside the city. With other developments, particularly the quick spread of cars and highways and mortgages with fewer upfront barriers, the suburbs became the space for the middle-class by the 1950s.

The key to the middle-class suburban dream is its affordability. The typical logic is that the farther a family moves from the big city, the cheaper and bigger the home can be. This explanation echoes the Chicago School and the concentric rings model developed by Burgess: land is more expensive in the city center and the progressively cheaper in zones further from the city. While moving further from the city has its costs (owning and maintaining a car is not cheap, the costs of providing city services in a sprawling location can be pricey), the goal is to get a sizable home.

This middle-class paradise has drawn its share of critics due to its mass-produced nature, lack of highbrow taste and sophistication, and façade of pleasantness that supposedly hides all sorts of sordid activity. Particularly in comparison to lively urban neighborhoods, the suburban middle-class life is often portrayed as dull if not outright oppressive. My favorite response to this is in sociologist Bennett Berger’s 1960 study of a working-class California suburb:

The critic waves the prophet’s long and accusing finger and warns: ‘You may think you’re happy, you smug and prosperous striver, but I tell you that the anxieties of status mobility are too much; they impoverish you psychologically, they alienate you from your family’; and so on. And the suburbanite looks at his new house, his new car, his new freezer, his lawn and patio, and, to be sure, his good credit, and scratches his head bewildered. (103)

Almost sixty years later, this rings true: many Americans still believe their suburban home full of stuff makes for a good life.

Protecting this middle-class land can be quite a task. Suburbanites are often opposed to new development near their homes, smaller housing, apartments, or affordable housing that could possibly lower their property values and threaten the middle-class character of the community. Some of the concern with people of difference races and ethnicities involves class. As anthropologist Rachel Heiman suggests, there is plenty of class-based anxiety in the suburbs, even in better-off ones. Open conflict should be avoided even as social control is desirable. The rise of homeowner’s associations to help police the actions of neighbors through a third party is one way to keep nearby residents in line.

For a society where the vast majority of citizens say they are middle-class (recent data here and here), the suburbs are the primary geographic and social space for middle-class lives. Obtaining a suburban single-family home still signals a middle-class life.

Suburbanites in wealthier areas are not all wealthy and can be Democrats and identify as working-class

The recent victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th House District has led some to question her background:

Ocasio-Cortez was born in 1989 to parents Sergio Ocasio-Roman, who was born in New York City, and mother Blanca Ocasio-Cortez, a native of Puerto Rico.

Her father, who tragically died from lung cancer in 2008, was an architect and the CEO of Kirschenbaum & Ocasio-Roman Architects, PC, which focused on remodeling and renovations…

Initially, the young family lived in Parkchester, a planned community of 171 mid-rise brick buildings in the Bronx.

When she was about five, Ocasio-Cortez’s family moved to the house in Westchester County, a detail that the bio omits.

The timing of the move is confirmed in a New York Times interview with mother Blanca Ocasio-Cortez, but the report does not address the discrepancy.

The home, a single-story with a finished basement, most recently sold for $355,000 in 2016. The median annual income in the area is $116,741, compared to the median annual income of $48,315 in Parkchester’s zip code, according to the latest Census data…

Her father’s death came amid the financial crisis and he left no will, putting their home on the brink of foreclosure, she has said.

The house was sold and Ocasio-Cortez now lives in the same Bronx apartment where she lived until age five.

I do not know all the details of Ocasio-Cortez’s background. The goal of the article above seems to be to suggest she is not quite the person she presents herself as and instead grew up in relatively privileged settings. Yet, her own descriptions are not necessarily out of character with what actually is taking place in suburbs today:

  1. Not everyone who lives in the suburbs is wealthy or even middle-class. Westchester County is historically a wealthy county outside of New York City. Yet, like many suburban counties that have experienced increased populations of poorer residents and non-white residents, there is more variety in social class and race and ethnicity in Westchester County than people might think. According to the Census, the county is only 53.4% white alone, 24.9% Latino, and 16.5% black. The median household income is over $86,000 but 10.0% of residents live in poverty. In other words, not everyone in Westchester County is a wealthy white person and some residents are more working-class (by certain measures or by self-identification).
  2. A common argument in the postwar suburban boom was that residents of cities would move to the suburbs and become staunch Republicans. This may have been true in some locations, particularly wealthier suburbs. However, the suburbs are now more diverse politically with numerous political battles depending on suburban voters. Suburbs closer to cities now lean toward Democrats while suburbs further out lean toward Republicans. Good numbers of American suburbanites are Democrats.

In other words, suburbs are now often diverse. Long-standing understandings of wealthier and whiter counties, whether Westchester County or DuPage County, might take time to change.

Now that the dandelions are almost gone, how lawn owners of different social classes can set themselves apart

I argued nearly two months ago that how different households treat dandelions in their yard could be a sign of their social class. Now that dandelion season is mostly over in our area, how might homeowners continue to exhibit their social class through their lawns?

  1. Green grass. Significant patches or brown spots are not good signs of a higher social class. This reminds me of celebrities and leaders in California caught with very green lawns even during a severe drought.
  2. The lawn should be cut to a good height regularly and meticulously trimmed. And this should probably done by someone else to indicate a higher social class.
  3. Sprinkler systems, soaker hoses, and elaborate ways to water the grass and plants indicate both caring more about the lawn as well as additional money to pull it off.
  4. Attractive plants, bushes, and trees. Many a real estate listing says yards are “professionally landscaped” but the implication is that more professionalism in this area – presumably related to expertise, thought, and effort – improves the quality of the property. A nice house with a sizable yard that is only the greenest lawn is likely not going to be as desirable as the greenest lawn complemented by other natural features.

Now that I have listed these options, I wonder at what point these different measures must be done in certain neighborhoods and communities. Imagine having a brown lawn in a less desirable neighborhood versus a ritzy one or being the one with a million dollar home who still cuts the lawn and trims the edges on their own. Perhaps there is a baseline of lawn care expected in most American locations and then extra features accrue depending on local practices and social class.

Suburban residential segregation and ongoing effects on voting and prejudice

A long New York TImes op-ed summarizes the findings of the 2017 book The Space Between Us by political scientist Ryan Enos:

Enos then looked at results from 124,034 precincts, almost every precinct in the United States. Again:

“A white voter in the least-segregated metropolitan area was 10 percentage points more likely to vote for Obama than a white voter in the most-segregated area.”…

These voting patterns, according to Enos, reflect what might be called a self-reinforcing cycle of prejudice.

“Prejudice may have helped cause segregation, but then the segregation helped cause even more prejudice.”

In other words, it is not just problematic that people of different racial/ethnic groups and social classes choose to (possible more often for whites and those with more financial resources) or are pushed to live in different places from each other. The residential segregation then has a feedback loop where those differences reinforced by spatial arrangements are perpetuated and perhaps even amplified.

As more of the op-ed explains, simply putting people together (such as suggested by Allport’s contact hypothesis or in the train experiment described in the essay) is not a silver bullet for forging relationships, networks, and reduced prejudices. Even as attitudes toward other groups have improved over time, what would push wealthier whites to sacrifice or put themselves into uncomfortable positions when they do not have to?