The Key West Mystique

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Save the middle class: Part II — Stop getting sucked into class bashing

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

10/12/2011

Two veteran teachers in a household push their income beyond middle class. A veteran firefighter has a darned good chance of having an upper class income.

Ditto for a slew of folks who think they’re making middle class incomes, when, in fact, they are playing on that much-maligned “rich” spreadsheet. That ubiquitous “Joe the Plumber” made a heck of a lot more than a middle class income.

The typical middle class household annual income today is about $97,000, reflecting the combined income of the “typical middle class man” in the high $50,000 and the woman in the very low $40,000.

That’s what makes this “hate the rich” and “love the middle class” arguments so silly. Whether it’s the Tea Party’s anger at taxes and big government or the Occupiers demonizing of Wall Street’s excesses — both potentially worthy causes, by the way –  none of this should be framed as a love affair with middle class coupled with a burning at the stake of the upper class.

There’s just not much middle class left. I’m not the only one thinking that way. The Atlantic posted an impressive, fact-driven narrative on the same subject. It’s long, and as the friend who shared it with me said, well worth the time.

These days most Americans like thinking of themselves as middle class. There’s something safe, comforting and downright American about being solidly in the middle. Neither too rich or too poor; too educated or too not. Just not “too” anything.

There have been times in our cultural history when moving on up was top of our collective goals. Getting to the hallowed ground, first of middle class, then of “upper middle class,” or, gasp, even “upper class,” was the way things were supposed to be.

To get there, we had to be educated, responsible, skilled at our jobs, reasonably fluent in the civics of our government, clean, reverent and brave, to borrow from the Scout manual. If we did those things, we made more money. Being middle class and then moving up the ladder was then, and always has been, far more than household income. It was about being and valuing the whole package.

I think today’s class definitions are all bollixed up. First, there’s this fact-less idea that middle class is “salt of the earth” types with good family values and a Christian work ethic, and enough education and civics lessons to know a little about a lot — all regardless of income.

Then, there is the equally fact devoid concept of an “upper class” that scarfs up all the money, looks down its nose at the middle class, ignores the needs of those less fortunate and, in general, fiddles while Rome burns, to use a cliche.

And, the “lower class”? What about its cultural types? Oh, the lower class is uneducated, has no values or work ethic, sucks off the public dole for generations and, generally, isn’t American.

The trouble with these cultural stereotypes is they make being middle class the only true and good “class” to be. And, that frames all of today’s disgruntled, polarized, frustratingly unsolvable challenges.

Let’s try to let go of these emotional, fact-less class stereotypes. We are all in this together.

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Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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