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The American Middle Class; A Brief History

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Hamilton
February 8, 2021

Revitalization of the middle class is the focus of this series of monthly articles. A lot in today’s headlines speaks to this very issue as America struggles to regain its footing during the two-pronged challenges of a pandemic and a faltering economy. In 2009, the President proclaimed, “A strong middle class equals a strong America,” referring to it as, “The economic engine of this nation.” Our next President went so far as to call a tax cut, “One of the great Christmas gifts to middle-income people,” according to an article published on December 18, 2017 by Reuters.com. But what exactly is the middle class and why is it so important that our political leadership, at the highest levels, invoke it and adorn it with largesse?             

The middle class represents a fabled part of American culture that holds a level of reverence and respect, bordering on sacred. As America entered the 20th century, it was depicted in the charming paintings of Norman Rockwell that frequented the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, under the leadership of its editor, George Horace Lorimer. According to encyclopedia.com, “Lorimer believed that the cultural values of the nineteenth-century American middle-class—honesty, integrity, hard-work, and self-reliance—would sustain the nation as it entered a new century.” By applying the values of a previous era, this popular periodical projected this view to a wide audience and reached over 10% of the nation’s households with a circulation of 5 million by the mid-50s.

Like countless others, I grew up in that idyllic period, with that magazine spread on our living room coffee table. Whatever the middle class was did not seem to matter, because we seemed to be part of it and like most kids, we never spent time thinking about such things. Belonging seemed to be enough because our world and family enveloped a sense of well-being and comfort. Being middle class also implied that we were average because in school, it meant the same thing; an average student in an average family. But what we did not understand and what many, including Lorimer, missed was the narrow focus of the middle class and the appeal of his magazine, “To the tastes of the ‘average’ American…white, middle-class, middle aged and comfortable,” as encylopidia.com concludes.

So what is the middle class? Although definitions abound, there remains no clear single definition. How could something so important and broadly accepted be so unclear? The Brookings Institute, in 2018, under the authorship of Richard V. Reeves, Katherine Guyot and Eleanor Krause, grappled with this question. In their article entitled, “Defining the middle class: Cash, credentials, or culture?” they offered the following summation.

“Concern about the fate of the middle class is now almost universal. But there is nothing approaching a universal definition. There is a kaleidoscopic range of definitions of the middle class, from a wholly subjective set of aspirations to a highly specific measure of household income, and everything in between. Is middle-class status a reflection of economic resources, especially income or wealth? Or is it denoted more clearly by occupational status and/or educational attainment? Is it, rather, a state of mind, a set of aspirations, or revealed through behavior, cultural tastes, or by certain kinds of consumption? Is it a question of how we define ourselves? What is the difference between the middle class and the working class? Does the term carry implicit racial connotations, an unspoken ‘white’ prefix always hovering before ‘middle class?’”

The answer to these questions is buried in our history. The Revolutionary War ended a European hierarchical structure in our quest for a society without rigid classes. But that noble pursuit did not fit reality. Not everyone owned land, few had advanced education and many struggled with subsistence farming while some were slaves with few if any rights during our formative years. Over time, this type of unstated yet real social relegation developed into our own structured society. Although we did not have a king, we had most of the trappings created by social boundaries; a few were rich, many were poor and the rest fit somewhere into the middle. For much of our history, this loose level of stratification co-existed with periods of tranquility and periods of unrest. For example, the excessive wealth of the Gilded Era clashed with the egalitarian views of fairness and equality, characterized as the American perspective, and created the Progressive Era, re-establishing social equilibrium.

But the society that emerged during and following World War 2, emblematic of the Saturday Evening Post, one that still pervades our thinking, changed the balance. In this era of growth and broad prosperity, “Most Americans came to consider themselves middle-class,” as stated by H.W. Brand in his book, The American Dream; the United States since 1945. How this happened is another topic but the fact remains that it did. As Brand states, “Starting around the beginning of World War II, the disparity between the wealthy and the rest of America diminished drastically.” What followed will be the topic of future articles.

Author: David Hamilton is a change leader that heads a consulting firm guiding local governments with visioning, planning and organizational alignment. As a public administrator, he led county and city governments to adapt and change. His doctoral studies at Hamline University were based on the impacts of rapid growth and development on Edge Counties. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a baccalaureate from Lakehead University. Hamilton is a member of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA where he served as Treasure and President. E-mail: [email protected]

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