Social Class: An Ignored Facet of American Life

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August 9, 2017 (San Diego) There are few subjects less discussed in American life than social class. In fact, we see ourselves, in our national myth as middle class. It does not matter if you are working a minimum wage job, and not making it, or you are Jeff Bezos, the President of Amazon, and considered the wealthiest man in the world. We all are one happy middle-class family.

The national myth gets worst. If you flip burgers for a living and work hard enough, apply yourself, and squirrel your money away, you too one day can have millions. This is the Horatio Alger story, that is commonly told to everybody, We all have an equal opportunity to become whatever our human potential and nose to grindstone allows us to become. It is a matter of will.

However, this is why Americans cannot talk in any meaningful way about class. This comes from a mythical construct that a conversation on the reality of class will tear down. First off, let’s look at social mobility. This has declined since 1980. According to economist Emily E. Wiemers at the Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts-Boston:

One striking feature is the decline in upward mobility among middle-class workers, even those with a college degree. Across the distribution of educational attainment, the likelihood of moving to the top deciles of the earnings distribution for workers who start their career in the middle of the earnings distribution has declined by approximately 20% since the early 1980s.

Of course, the data has regional variations. This was found by the Pennsylvania Institute and Urban Research.

Looking at the probability that a child who grew up in a bottom-quintile income family reaches the top-quintile of the income distribution across areas of the U.S., we find substantial variation across regions.  In some parts of the U.S. – such as the Southeast and the Rust Belt – children in the bottom quintile have less than a 5% chance of reaching the top quintile.  In other areas, such as the Great Plains and the West Coast, children in the bottom quintile have more than a 15% chance of reaching the top quintile.

There is substantial variation in upward mobility even among large cities that have comparable economies and demographics.  Cities such as Salt Lake City and San Jose have rates of mobility comparable to Denmark and other countries with the highest rates of mobility in the world.  Other cities – such as Charlotte and Milwaukee – offer children very limited prospects of escaping poverty.  These cities have lower rates of mobility than any developed country for which data are currently available.

This matters since these regional differences also track down on where two populist candidates did very well last year. Both Trump and Sanders resonated in areas that have the lowest social mobility in the country. Moreover, 15 percent is not that great either.

So we talk about social mobility, the Horatio Alger myth, encapsulated by the idea of the American Dream, is not real. It is a mythology. This is one reason Americans refuse to talk about class.

The Invisible Poor

If you live in a country where everybody is middle class, the poor become invisible. They are an inconvenient truth that creates cognitive dissonance. This expands to how poverty is covered in the media when it is covered. And how Hollywood portrays poverty.

In media reporting, there is a certain bias against covering stories on poverty. This is something that the Columbia School of Journalism understands:

People talk all the time about media bias. I actually think there’s a structural bias in the media against the poor. Newspapers are built to cover the wealthy and the famous much more than they are built to cover the working class or the poor. There are entire business sections devoted to what the people running big companies do. There are whole sections that focus on gossip about celebrities and rich sports figures. There are good reasons why all these sections exist, but taken together, this is a very large commitment on the part of journalists to a particular slice of society. There is no part of the newspaper routinely devoted to the coverage of the problems of poor people, or struggling working-class—or even middle-class—people.

While this is a structural problem, there is more to this than just structural. It is a conversation that we do not want to have as a society. However, this is one of the reasons why have the rise of populism in the United States.

While the rise of Donald Trump is not just poor white Americans voting for him. Indeed much of his support comes from middle-class households, our refusal to face on to economic anxieties is part of the conversation. As the Guardian aptly put it:

In seeking to explain Trump’s appeal, proportionate media coverage would require more stories about the racism and misogyny among white Trump supporters in tony suburbs. Or, if we’re examining economically driven bitterness among the working class, stories about the Democratic lawmakers who in recent decades ended welfare as we knew it, hopped in the sack with Wall Street and forgot American labor in their global trade agreements.

But, for national media outlets comprised largely of middle- and upper-class liberals, that would mean looking their own class in the face.

I would add, most of that national media commentariat is also coastal, and that matters. This coastal commentariat is not sharing on much of the experience of the hard trodden life of those in the heartland, or even those in less well to do areas of their coastal enclaves.

Then there is this view from Fairness and Accuracy in the Media. (FAIR). The piece also appeared at BillMoyers.com.

We don’t address why poverty doesn’t register with candidates. But as a media critic I would advise journalists to follow the money. Poor people have no political access: they are not major campaign donors and they don’t have political action committees. One of the few groups advocating for the poor, ACORN, was destroyed by right-wing propagandists, abetted by mainstream corporate media in 2009/2010. The GOP hasn’t worried much about the poor since the Progressive Era. For the past three decades or so, the Democratic Party has increasingly seen an association with the poor as a political liability.

Poverty doesn’t register with journalists for many reasons. For one, poverty isn’t deemed newsworthy in general, as past FAIR studies have shown. After Hurricane Katrina prompted several bigfoot journalists to declare that they were going to dedicate themselves to more coverage of poverty and race, poverty coverage increased on the evening network news from an average of two seconds of each 22 minute newscast to four seconds.

So in our media the poor are invisible. Class is not a subject that is covered. We like to pretend that we are a classless society.

Then there is Hollywood. Movies and TV programs are not just for internal consumption. Yes, if you are in Mexico City, you will see people watching NCIS, and series on Netflix. TV series almost never show poverty on their screens. And when they do, they tend to have a Horatio Alger like story. Somebody who pulled themselves by their bootstraps who succeeded.

Nor do our media show our failing infrastructure. We had a conversation with a highly educated lawyer in Mexico City, who did not believe us when we told him how bad our infrastructure deficit is in the city of San Diego. Why? When he watches American TV, or movies unless it is something like Transformers. everything is gleaming, people have enough to eat, and nobody is poor. When poor are shown in US Movies. We are not the only ones to notice this:

understanding class in America is not just about television shows, but it’s these flawed, warped representations that allow our society to seriously misunderstand the levels of inequality and the sources of struggle across our country.  When serious news channels call progressive taxation “class warfare,” they get away with it because we don’t know what working-class America (let alone truly poor America) looks like, and we are taught that if they just worked harder they’d be successful—and anyway, if they were truly deserving of help, Ty Pennington would come and build them a new house.

In popular culture, rich people become a spectacle and middle-class people become rich people, while poor people are alternately overlooked, ridiculed, or have their challenges attributed to their own shortcomings instead of systemic inequalities.  These disparities—both real and portrayed—are what I hope to explore in this new blog series.

Then there is the theme of deserving poor. Those who are worth helping have some sort of redeeming quality, however, they are always blamed for their circumstances. Rarely, if ever, structural conditions are addressed.

This means that we do not face the obvious culprit for this. Income inequality has become far worst over the last few decades. If we are to address it, we need to have those uncomfortable conversations about class. Instead, we continue to talk about the poor as trash people.

Then there is a final piece to this toxic mix. This is a racial component. Many Americans believe most of the poor are people of color. Never mind that most poor are white. Nor are we talking about another cause of a decrease in the life expectancy of the mostly white poor. This is hopelessness. As the Atlantic has pointed out:

Meanwhile, other recent research has piled on the bad news for those without college degrees. A Pew study released last month found that the size of the middle class—defined by a consistent income range across generations—has shrunk over the last several decades. In part, this is because high-paying jobs for the less educated are vanishing. The study builds on other recent research that finds that almost all the good jobs created since the recession have gone to college graduates.

This is critical to the opioid epidemic in the United States.

Finally, there is another reason we as a society do not want to confront this. We are in the process of creating a permanent underclass. This underclass will be kept poor, ignorant and resentful, preferably of people of different racial backgrounds and not their social betters.

However, this social underclass can be the source of a social crisis. It could lead to conflict. It also could shatter the myths that have been the underpinning of the American myth. This is understood by a few people in the top of the food chain. Nick Hanauer wrote his warning in Politico some years back.

His message was clear:

I see pitchforks.

At the same time that people like you and me are thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history, the rest of the country—the 99.99 percent—is lagging far behind. The divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast. In 1980, the top 1 percent controlled about 8 percent of U.S. national income. The bottom 50 percent shared about 18 percent. Today the top 1 percent share about 20 percent; the bottom 50 percent, just 12 percent.

But the problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.

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2 replies

  1. Excellent analysis on classism in America. Thank you once again, Nadin, for your brilliant writing, which is an education.

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