Baseline: Middle Class

I won’t know how much I have progressed, unless I know where I start.

I have a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, so the concept of a baseline is important to me. Because by knowing where I began, I can know by the end or through the process, how far I have come, and if what I am doing is making any difference at all. It also helps to expose preexisting conditions and extraneous factors.

So in my examination of unbalanced wealth, I will start with my biases and initial thoughts, beginning with the focus on the middle class.

Pastor Tim suggests that we focus on the middle class in order to rebalance wealth. I think that the middle class is important to consider, especially because it is referred to in mainstream media and rhetoric as “the majority of Americans” and “the average American.” Essentially, it is viewed as the norm, the politically safe group to target, because meeting the needs of the poorest in society can be misconstrued as being in favor of handouts and enabling laziness, and working toward deregulating corporations for the wealthy is seen as insensitive, ivory tower, pandering toward those already in power.

However, as a social worker, I am primarily concerned about those who are the most disadvantaged and whose voices are not heard. Therefore, when I see the Wealth Inequality in America video, and watch the curve for wealth distribution among the lower, middle and upper class, I want to see the lower class uplifted. There are things we can do to help the middle class that are needed– for instance, finding better ways to finance college and keep tuition costs low, but I think that rather than maintaining the status quo, we need to change systems (e.g. mixed-income housing, increase access to banks and credit, expand the Harlem Children’s Zone educational model) to expand opportunities for individuals to move from the lower class to the middle class, and to improve conditions for people who have lower socioeconomic status.

This is where ideology comes into play. Part of the reason why I am in the field of social work is due to my Christian faith. As I read the Bible, I was repeatedly struck by how often the God of Abraham called for people to care for the orphans, the widows, the poor and “the least of these.” Not only that, I noted how angry God was when people who claimed to follow Him (yes, I am using the traditional pronoun for God, and recognize there are other ways to address God… or G-d) did not do so. In my interpretation of Scripture, I see these references to the orphans, widows, poor and “the least of these” as referring to anyone whom society marginalizes, who have less voice, if any voice at all, who do not tend to have powerful people to call upon, or personal resources to fall back upon, and whom society tries to forget and people in the mainstream rhetoric do not like to talk about. I would rather focus upon the lower class, rather than the middle class, because we do not like to talk about the lower class. Dr. Purnell released this video during the most recent election, on how welfare is the campaign issue no one is talking about:

I get it. “Welfare” is a loaded term, that brings to mind concepts of “liberty” (individual choice in philanthropic giving) and “deservingness” (aid for older adults has remained relatively stable in comparison to younger adults, especially younger adults without children, because older adults are seen as “deserving” because they are viewed as being unable to work and perceived as deserving aid because they contributed to society throughout their lives). Nonetheless, I think we need to talk about welfare, because it is inextricably tied to strategies to uplift those with lower socioeconomic status, and issues of poverty affect everyone. The issues are in our overcrowded emergency rooms, on violent street corners and in rumbling bellies of school cafeterias.

I have a normal curve as the picture for this post, because I have the possibly naive idea that the normal distribution should approximate the distribution of people in the various classes of society. Very few people who are in poverty and very few people who are wealthy, with a huge middle class in between. I think this makes sense from a quality of life standpoint, because people do not need to be above middle class to be happy. Career blogger Penelope Trunk references researchers and a comedian to make this point:

How much money buys happiness? A wide body of research suggests the number is approximately forty thousand dollars a year. Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, says once you have enough money to meet basic needs — food, shelter, but not necessarily cable, incremental increases have little effect on your happiness.

Aaron Karo, comedian and author of the forthcoming book, Ruminations on Twentysomething Life, responds to the number with, “If you want to draw a line in the sand, happiness is having enough money so you don’t have to move back in with your parents.”

To someone who just spent four years in college living off nine-thousand-dollar loan stipends, an increase to forty thousand means a lot — moving from poverty to middle class. But it’s a one-time rush. After you hit the forty-thousand-dollar-range money never gives you that surge in happiness again.

Twentysomethings who are looking for happiness from their careers will benefit from research about their parents’ choices. Richard Easterlin, professor of economics at University of Southern California says previous generations have proven that our desires adjust to our income. “At all levels of income, the typical response is that one needs 20% more to be happy.” Once you have basic needs met, the axiom is true: more money does not make more happiness.

Of course, one might also consider that the concept of the middle class is in question. Apparently, we don’t always agree on what “middle class” means and some might even argue that the middle class is being wiped out! Part of it might also have to do with personal issues with contentment, different philosophies on fiscal management and regional differences in cost of living. However, I think we can all identify when a person is living in poverty, especially considering that the federal poverty calculation is flawed and underestimates the amount that a person needs to live. My friend is trying to live below the poverty line as an experiment, and even that’s not easy. Basically, around five decades ago, people decided how much a person need to eat to live. And since then, federal poverty measures have not changed, except with adjustments for inflation. To read the history of federal poverty measures, click here.

[Aside: The federal poverty measures also affect calculations such as the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) made to Social Security, which results in the COLA not taking into account that a) older adults eat less, but b) spend much more on health care. Toss in Medicaid spend down requirements needed to qualify for long-term care support and then you get a bunch of older adults who have fallen from the middle class into the lower class. It’s no wonder many older adults can hardly scrape by on Social Security! I made a former post on Bernie Sanders’ proposal to improve the COLA here.]

Ultimately, I do think we need to pay attention to the middle class, but we should not forget about those who belong to the lower class. What’s more, I think we need to focus on efforts to alleviate poverty with a variety of strategies, ranging from direct assistance to policy change.

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