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THE BALTIMORE SUN

In his campaign speeches, Vice President Al Gore tells audiences that he wants "middle-class tax cuts." Lest there be any doubt, he promises that his economic plan has "one guiding purpose: to help the middle-class families."

When George W. Bush speaks of cutting taxes, he rhetorically targets the same crowd. One of his fundamental goals if elected president, Bush says, will be "to treat the middle class more fairly."

But what is this middle class? Jeff Bradley, who makes $20,000 a year working for Sam's Shoe Service, a repair shop in Columbus, Ohio, has five children who receive their health insurance through Medicaid. His wife earns $10,000 annually waiting tables. The couple can't afford tickets to see Tarzan in the local production of "Disney's Jungle Adventures on Ice." The household is also struggling with $7,000 in debt, mostly from credit cards.

Bradley calls himself middle-class.

So does Nancy Turley.

She owns a catering business in downtown Denver, loves attending plays and concerts and, with her husband, has an annual family income of $95,000, including about $10,000 a year from investments.

Bradley believes he is "barely" middle-class. Turley uses the tag "upper middle-class." But both insist on "middle." That is what an overwhelming majority of Americans say of themselves: Asked whether they belong to the "lower," "middle" or "upper" class, roughly 85 percent put themselves in the middle, according to Tom Smith, a social scientist at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Alternatives change results

Smith oversees the General Social Survey, a personal interview survey of U.S. households that has measured national attitudes since 1972. He finds that if people are given an alternative to "middle class," the results change. Offered the choice of "lower class," "working class," "middle class" and "upper class," 5 percent of the people surveyed in 1998 called themselves lower-class, 45 percent working-class, 46 percent middle-class, 4 percent upper-class.

People who work in construction, on assembly lines or in service industries are happy to call themselves working-class, Smith says. But they resist a label of "lower," "because the connotation suggests being poor, on welfare, someone who hasn't made it," he says.

No matter what their salary or lifestyle, Americans also hesitate to call themselves upper-class. "Physicians and other professional people define that as an elite group they don't feel a part of," Smith says.

To identify the statistical middle, many economists use median family income. According to the most recent census figures, from 1998, the figure is $46,737. That is, half of the nation's 72 million families earn more than that amount, and half earn less. Economists typically use the 20 percent of families with incomes surrounding that number - ranging from about $38,000 to $56,000 - to designate what they consider the middle class.

Struggling with bills

Economists say that class includes many families lacking college degrees and struggling to pay bills.

Defined statistically, American middle-class families live in residences with 5.4 rooms (2.7 of them bedrooms) and 1,730 square feet of space. The census doesn't specify a median number of bathrooms, but the middle family has between one and two of them.

Married, five children

Turley, the Colorado caterer, would be surprised to learn that, according to economic gauges, she is rich. Bradley, the Ohio shoe repairman, seems to fit the middle-class profile.

He is 30, married, has five children and rents a house with six rooms, including three bedrooms (a basement is used as a fourth) and 1 1/2 bathrooms.

A year ago, when his wife, Kelly, was pregnant, she was earning a little less than $10,000 waiting tables and qualified for federal welfare money to help with groceries. Now, she is trying to hold onto a second job as a receptionist, which, if stable, would pay as much as $20,000. That would increase the family's income from $30,000 to $50,000.

"When you're upper class, you can afford to buy season tickets for hockey," Jeff Bradley says. "When you're middle class, you can sometimes take the kids to a movie, you know, occasionally get out of the house." His definition of middle class: "As long as you've got a house, your bills are paid and you've got food on the table."

This true middle class faces tougher economic conditions today than in past decades, despite the long economic boom.

Incomes stagnated

Family income rose markedly in the first decades after World War II. From 1947 to 1972, a period of job and productivity growth, median family income doubled, to $40,809 from $20,415. The United States then entered a period of inflation and slow growth. Incomes of middle-class families stagnated. The figure in 1993 was $41,691, about 2 percent higher than in 1972.

Since 1993, it has risen by about 12 percent. But economists say that most of the middle-class gains result from people working far more hours. Meanwhile, the middle-class families have seen their debt multiply while enjoying fewer gains from the stock market than wealthier Americans have.

The difference between the current and past periods of prosperity, says Jared Bernstein, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute, is that when the economy heats up today, it mostly benefits wealthier Americans. "Middle-class families are wondering if they fit in the 'new economy,'" he says.

Families in this true middle might decide this year's presidential race, some experts say.

Ruy Teixeira, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York, has co-written a book about them, "America's Forgotten Majority." Teixeira argues that a group of voters consisting mostly of white men and women who have incomes near the median, lack a college education and have jobs in the service sector have the decisive vote at the polls. They, not the often-mentioned "soccer moms," might be the key audience for the presidential candidates.

These families typically resented welfare, felt overlooked by the liberal policies of the Democratic Party in the 1980s and became the "Reagan Democrats" who elected Ronald Reagan to two terms, says Teixeira. This is the "middle class," he says, that both presidential candidates this year are vying fervently to win over.

"Bush is banking on the idea that what they're still interested in is getting their taxes cut," Teixeira says. "Gore is saying they'll be happy with tax cuts targeted at health care, retirement and education but that these voters are now open to government helping them in some ways." What helps Gore, he says, is that President Clinton, by reforming the welfare system, has restored the image of his party, making it seem something more than a big spender.(Bradley, who lives in the swing state of Ohio, plans to vote but is undecided and is paying close attention to both campaigns).

Some see the key political battleground elsewhere. Smith, the University of Chicago social scientist, notes that Gore's rhetoric changed in September: He stopped using "working families" in speeches and began using "middle-class families." It was an attempt, Smith says, to reach beyond the laborers with incomes of about $47,000 to voters who make much more but perceive themselves as middle class.

"He's always emphasized labor," Smith says of Gore. "But you can't win an election with your base. So he has tried moving from his base to the middle."

Or, in economic terms, from his base to the upper.

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