Thursday, August 07, 2003

Economic Facts and Fictions

The following is the text of a letter I sent to the Boston Globe Magazine. In June the Magazine published an article on how the former tech sector nouveau (they thought) riche had fallen from upper middle and upper class status to the lowly state of what they thought was a working stiff. I didn’t write in response to the article as much as to the other letters in the July 27 Globe Magazine. Respondents seemed surprised that they were not considered middle class, even though they earned relatively little. They were also appalled that the now nouveau (relatively) poor (in their minds) were somewhat arrogant and put off by the rest of us. This information is particularly relevant considering the recent labor department unemployment report including its count of discouraged workers.

This is the text of my submission:

The shocking reality that arises from the article “Middle Class and Out of Work” is not that families with combined incomes of $100,000 consider themselves middle class. The shock is that so many respondents to this Letters section think of that income level as upper class. This is the great myth of U.S. economic life. That somehow, living pay check to pay check, on 20, 30, or 50,000 per year, a family can consider themselves middle class. The historical experience of the middle in capitalist economies is characterized by the ability to own property and have savings.

If the readers of this magazine were to investigate the web site of the Women’s Education and Industrial Union, ( they would find the most recent Family Economic Self Sufficiency Standard, calculated regularly by the WEIU. This year they announced to live in Boston, renting a unit, is $51,284 for a one parent family with a school age child and pre-schooler. That’s not the federal poverty level of just over $15, 200 or the Massachusetts minimum wage ($6.75 per hour) of $14,000 for 2080 hours of full time work.

So the reality is that most US families are poor or working class. What the middle class families are discovering is how tenuous, how ephemeral a life of home ownership, vacations, and multiple savings accounts and retirement plans can be. That both groups, those of us who know we are not wealthy and those who think they are or somehow believe their security is permanent, that we don’t get together to organize for a more just economy – a livable minimum wage, security in housing and health care, and access to good educations for all children – is far more appalling than realizing that some folks who enjoyed the brief illusion of middle class incomes are arrogant, classist and insensitive. One of the points of the illusion is to breed the kind of division represented in your magazine article.

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