Defining my terms — socioeconomic class divisions

A conversation with my guy last night reminded me of the importance of defining my terms. I speak openly and freely with only a handful of people out here in the world and otherwise write mostly for my own self, for venting and pondering purposes, and I can overlook when speaking to new people that my word usage might not come across as I’m intending.

For example, socioeconomic class divisions in the U.S. While I was growing up people spoke of essentially 4 classes: the rich, the middle class, the working class, and the impoverished class. These classes obviously aren’t strictly and clearly divided according to personal income. Job functions factor in, as does the impact of having two (or more) breadwinners within a household. It’s common to associate white-collar positions with middle-class earners, and blue-collar positions with working-class earners, because the stereotype largely fits.

But then in the ’80s and ’90s blue-collar positions began transferring to Mexico and overseas. Active unions were busted up. This occurred at the same time Wall Street was all the rage, with dotcoms and companies like Microsoft introduced on the scene. Rich people were getting richer, as to be expected, but new stars were rising all around. Though, this is also a time when hard drugs were ravaging low-income neighborhoods. The classes were stretching farther away from one another.

Some go up and down in socioeconomic status over the course of their lives. But members of the lowest class typically don’t move above working class. Most working-class professionals remain in that class their entire adult lives because their labor is tied to a specific trade — it’s what they’ve been trained and become proficient at doing. But plenty of their kids have risen to middle-class standing thanks in large part to college educations (a dream that’s now ending).

It’s also said that the middle-class is further divided into lower and upper sections. People in the lower-middle class may strive to rise to its upper echelon. Though most within the middle class haven’t proven able to transcend it and land among the rich, at least not the really rich. But what the hell am I talking about?

That’s a good question. Because what supposedly counts as “rich” has risen over time, yet what now is counted as “middle class” has been lowered. In fact, the “working class” is rarely ever even discussed in the mainstream media anymore — the term is being retired apparently. But why? I believe it has a lot more to do with politics and the manipulation of people’s psychologies so as to boost our self-esteem and help us feel like we’re not losing ground, though actually many are (especially when we look at the rising cost of living relative to stagnating wages). It’s a political maneuver not intended to accurately reflect reality but rather to obscure it.

So how do I classify this stuff for myself? In my mind, you become rich today if you’re earning (as a household) $500,000 or more a year (in today’s prices — stock options and investment portfolios also taken into consideration). Millionaires and billions are unarguably rich (whether they tie up all their income supporting lavish lifestyles that eventually bankrupt them or wield their influence to dictate global markets, compared to most of us out here they’re rich — we can break down rich vs. wealthy another time).

By my own standard and way of looking at things, you and/or your household can be considered middle-class if household members altogether bring in $100,000 or more a year or if a single earner brings in approximately $75,000/yr.

It should be noted that there’s this hazy gray area between $60,000-$100,000 that differs a great deal depending on whether we’re discussing a single-earner or combined incomes within a household. For ex., two married earners raising a family and bringing in $40k/yr. for a combined $80k/yr. may still very well belong to the working class, yet one single earner bringing in $75k/yr. may live a solidly middle-class existence, especially if he or she has no children to provide for or major debts to worry with.

And I haven’t even established if I’m talking about pre- or post-taxed income. Let’s base this on income after taxes are taken out.

Carrying on, the working class is as tricky as the middle class to clearly define. Some people work in seasonal blue-collar positions, and plenty of trades are impacted by weather conditions. Because most blue-collar positions involve one’s physical labor (whether that be repetitive movements on an assembly line or muscular strength exerted in physically-demanding jobs), injuries do happen, so time taken off (hopefully covered by workman’s comp) can factor in from year to year (or may result in permanent disablement). Someone may regularly expect to earn $37k/yr. but then wind up laid off for several months before securing another similar position. There can be lots of ups and downs in this socioeconomic bracket, though it can be roughly considered to be people working in blue-collar positions for somewhere between $20-some-odd-thousand/yr. on up to maybe $80k/yr. (maybe more for a select few).

Now for the poor. The impoverished class is just that — living below, at or near the poverty line. Currently I believe for a single person the poverty line is set around $14k/yr. (more for families supporting children). This class of people is most closely associated with relying on  state and federal economic benefits due to their low income (though, here again, persons in the working and middle classes have been recipients of unemployment benefits, food stamps, and even housing assistance during rough spells — as if that needed to be stated). Reliance is the key concept there, because the most impoverished tend to come from impoverished families themselves, this being known as the “culture of poverty.” That’s basically about how very poor people learn a different set of tactics for getting by (like gaming the government’s social programs) and then pass these on to their kids (or, perhaps more accurately, their children don’t tend to learn much else in households that function in this way).

That’s how I personally break down socioeconomic classes in the U.S. today. Seems pretty basic and straightforward, though some might like to quibble about my arbitrary income bracketing. And there are unclear exceptions, such as among academics where those teaching in certain departments earn a great deal more than those in other departments, yet they all teach within academia, a decidedly white-collar profession. So, say, a sociology instructor bringing in only $38k/yr. may appear to be classified among the working class because of his or her income, yet the position itself elevates them. It’s murky terrain, no answers set in stone, I acknowledge that. But for simplicity’s sake I sometimes have to break out the generalities and categorize people.

And to end, here’s George Carlin’s opinion on the matter delivered in under 2 minutes.

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One Response to Defining my terms — socioeconomic class divisions

  1. Pingback: Why middle-class people piss me off - Wayward Blogging

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