Social class, we’ve long been advised, is not a subject for public conversation. Not only is it a divisive topic with inflammatory implications, but it is largely irrelevant to our American experience. We simply have not witnessed overt, sustained social class alignments in our history. Accordingly it is a category of thought, an abstraction, unworthy of discussion.Our
“good fortune” relates to the fact that the United States has been and remains a land of opportunity, one where exceptional social mobility prevails as well as a society that confers substantial freedom upon individuals to pursue and achieve their full potential.
This conspiracy of silence has, however, ended. Recognition of social and economic class division in contemporary America is unavoidable, has become the subject of interest and open discussion. Suddenly we’ve stripped away the protective shield of presumed classlessness and identified and documented a social layering long ignored. Contributing to this new reality is the attention currently focused upon the super rich. Having been designated the upper “1%” they are attracting unprecedented scrutiny, much of it critical. They are, we’re told, not only earning supersized incomes, but are, at the same time stockpiling immense wealth. They have, moreover, succeeded in protecting their gains thanks to favorable provisions of our tax code and their ability to fund candidates for public office committed to maintaining their privileged positons and warding off efforts to address existing imbalances. These elites have in many ways distanced themselves from the rest of us and rigged the system” (e.g., educational opportunities) to ensure that they remain secure and positioned at the top of the heap. Furthermore, they’ve taken to hurling verbal thunder bolts at those who question existing arrangements, charging them with inciting envy, imparting alien ideologies and threatening an economic system that has, they proclaim, showered benefits on so many for so long.
The middle class has always been our pride and joy. This sober, self-sacrificing, dynamic, productive segment of the population has been celebrated as the indispensable backbone of American society. Moreover, its most talented members would, it was assumed, eventually ascend into the upper classes to the overall benefit of the nation. These days, however, the state of the middle class is worrisome. Too many within it are struggling, just to maintain their positions. Wages are virtually stagnant, well-paid employment opportunities appear insufficient while costs – for college, medical care, rent and pension programs – mount. The squeeze is on. Moreover, there is concern that traditional middle class values may be eroding as well as we take note of low levels of family formation reduced home ownership, long-term unemployment, increasing indebtedness, drug use and low levels of retirement savings. The fact that political leaders of all persuasions voice concern about the relative decline of the middle class suggests that there’s substance behind our anxiety.
America has never been attentive to its poor assuming for the most part that they were not very numerous and that their condition was not permanent. They would, it was assumed, be able to “lift themselves up by their bootstraps” and in time share in America’s bounty. And even if most remained poor they had only themselves to blame. Still, they clearly were better off than the wretched poor around the world. The poor of late have again become a subject of public discussion for several reasons, including the fact that we are currently marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and debating the efficacy of raising minimum wages across the nation. Furthermore, Republicans and Democrats have both addressed the issue acknowledging the seriousness of the situation and differing considerably over remedial actions. Recent evidence suggests that the poor in America may not be better off than the lower classes of western Europe. Any consideration of affordable housing and child care facilities, incarceration rates, family dysfunction, poor diets and obesity, educational achievement, drugs and violence among this population points toward such a conclusion. Compared to America’s other social classes, the poor have few platforms of their own to voice their concern. Nonetheless others have taken up their cause and are highlighting their struggles.
Given America’s all-embracing Middle class, the working class has often been hard pressed to differentiate itself. But that has changed as it currently finds itself confronted with challenges of a new order of magnitude. Like the middle class, it is facing a shrinking pool of well-paying jobs. Unions that once helped promote middle class wages no longer have the clout to do so. Jobs have left the US while American companies have migrated to low wage areas across the country. Technology has eliminated many job categories while new ones call for skills and credentials that must first be acquired. Too often the working class individual finds him or herself in the unfortunate position of earning too much to qualify for various forms of government assistance. Little wonder, then there is widespread discontent, together with an ongoing search both for remedies and scapegoats.
Given the circumstances described above the rise of class consciousness is likely to gather momentum. In the past America’s political system has been flexible and sufficiently responsive so that class resentments have from time to time been addressed and thus have not been overly disruptive. But what can we expect this time when class lines have become more clearly defined and conflicting interests exposed? The stalemated politics of Washington offers little promise that these serious issues can be addressed, relief provided or tensions defused.