I honestly don’t know why people are acting incensed about presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s impolitic statement that his primary concern is the middle class. If you’ve watched the news, read popular blogs, and followed the public discourse (including input from the Occupy movement) in the last couple of years, it would be readily apparent to you that the middle class is pretty much everyone’s main interest. The number of voices calling for a return to a war against poverty are few. No, what the American public has become consumed with is the shrinking and even destruction of the Made-in-the-USA middle class. This, in most minds, is the great tragedy in our venture capitalist system. Romney just said it artlessly.
Underneath this popular worry is the reality that most people are and aspire to be middle class. I know, in America you’re supposed to want to strike it rich — and most people will say that’s what they want — but realistically, they know they won’t make it. They may hope to be wealthy, but they angle to be middle class…because that’s a decent life. You can be proud of being middle class. There’s a social respectability and cultural desirability there. That status still allows you to claim the honor of hard work without the shame of bounced checks. You get to enjoy some luxury without having to feel guilty that you are blowing enough money to send someone’s kid to college. It allows you to believe you still serve God and not Mammon.
Most people in the US self-identify as middle class (even if they can’t define it). They claim it, and even feel entitled to it. It’s an identity that can be worn with pride — unlike poverty, which is a sign of low moral character and ignorance according to our popular thinking. People who are poor are too dumb to get professional jobs, too lazy to do the work to get ahead, and too low-class to aspire to better. Under a social hierarchy defined by wealth, the poor are American untouchables. You have to violently shun that status at all costs.
This kind of thinking has not always been the norm in the United States though. In fact, it’s relatively new. Being poor — a life of honesty and debt and beans and patched clothes — that used to be something many Americans were proud of. There was a celebrated sub-culture around that. Will Rogers said: “I can remember when a man could be considered respectable without belonging to a golf club.” This was a guy who was internationally known but embraced a simple persona fitting for his 10th grade education and rural background. In the 1940’s, Woody Guthrie recorded an album originally called Bed on the Floor, which was later changed to Poor Boy. His folk tunes were full of the difficulties of a life of want but joy in life with other poor folk and pride in manual labor. Meanwhile, American audiences made movie stars of Ma and Pa Kettle and their humorous, illiterate ways. And, don’t forget the Capra-corn: It’s a Wonderful Life celebrated the honor of poor virtue over corrupt wealth.
Later, in the 60’s, President Johnson declared war on poverty and Fannie Lou Hamer proclaimed: “We serve God by serving our fellow man; kids are suffering from malnutrition. People are going to the fields hungry. If you are a Christian, we are tired of being mistreated.” These attacks on poverty, however, were in no way condemnations of the poor. Rather, they were efforts to ameliorate the worst of the effects of hunger and deprivation on that segment of our population. Into the 70’s, popular culture still reflected families struggling with mortgages and living outside of excessive consumerism without treating these figures as lesser than or morally challenged.
Then the Gospel of Wealth came along, and being poor turned into a mark of those forgotten by God. Soon, the working class family on Roseanne would stand out as a strange anomaly on TV — even as it connected with millions of Americans whose lives so reflected that representation. I guess time and credit changes all things. Items that used to be luxuries or marks of a life of leisure are now commonplace. Even in working class neighborhoods of my city, I see women — and girls — with manicured hands and nicely highlighted hair. It seems like everyone has a smartphone and Coach purse. The old markers of class are so unreliable today. Americans try so hard to look the same now, and invariably, that sameness is middle class. Even the “ghetto fabulous” image is about affluence without actual wealth. No one wants to be the Joads or the Youngers and look their (lower) class. Most importantly, no one cared that the poor were getting poorer as the 21st century unfolded — until the middle class started joining them. Then, everyone got up-in-arms about wealth inequality. Whatever we do, we must, by all means, protect the God-bless-American middle class. It’s of the utmost importance to us all.