"That which in England we call the middle class is, in America, virtually the nation."
-- Matthew Arnold, 1882
What do middle age, middle child and middle class have in common? All three are ordinary vocabulary terms that are impossible to define.
Concerning birth order, the middle child is obvious if we're describing a family of three. But who's to say a child in any-sized family who is neither the idolized firstborn nor the pampered "baby of the family" couldn't be the non-apple of their parents' eye?
Webster offers some help with the other two, calling middle age "the time of life between youth and old age," and middle class "the socioeconomic class between the working class and the upper class." But does anyone know where "middle" starts or stops? When does youth's vitality slip into oblivion and old age replace prime time, or exactly what income levels separate poverty, affluence and that indistinct catch-all in between?
Since it's unlikely any two people agree on the parameters of middle age, and "The Society for the Advancement of the Middle Child" isn't stomping its collective-bargaining feet, we'll confine our thoughts to that maligned group known by every sympathetic, pre-election politician as, "The Middle Class."
To hear some candidates tell it, the way the current administration has botched the American economy, this middle class is a pathetic lot -- all taxes and no American dream. Yet if the "middle class" falls between the working class and the obviously wealthy, then they are neither workers nor members of the aristocracy. I'm not sure how they receive their support -- by osmosis, perhaps? -- but if they are suffering such an income tax burden, and income taxes are paid on income, then how do you reconcile the two definitions?
I have a lot of questions about this screaming campaign issue. First of all, I need a definition of the group we're supposed to be so worried about. If, according to current statistics, less than 30 percent of the population are disabled, unemployed or otherwise living below the poverty line, and less than 2 percent of the country live in the upper class, then that leaves two-thirds of the country in "the middle class."
If my definition is true, and this group is paying all the taxes, then they must have the most jobs and spend the most money. Otherwise, why does every home I see have a car in the garage for every driver in the family? Why are restaurant lines so long, manicured nails and salon-treated hair so prevalent, and movie theater parking lots so full every weekend? Why, too, are most homes equipped with multiple electronic gadgets from computers to TVs?
I really don't get it. If this obviously working, obviously income-generating, and most obviously spending group of people is so financially strapped that we can't pay our taxes, then why don't we skip a manicure a month, that $50 minimum trip to the movies -- ticket and snacks for a family of 3-4 -- now and then and rediscover the art of cooking at home?
Since at this point it's undecided which administration will be around six months from now to steer our financial ship of state, we don't know whether the poor, working -- or non-working -- majority will be better off than they are now, or sliding into the doomsayers' certain economic gutter. So, while you're waiting for that potential, pie-in-the-sky relief program to come along, or dreading that more-of-the-same, rudderless ship if the current skipper is re-elected, perhaps comparing the ain't-it-awful way things are now with this same "ship" 100 years ago will alter your perspective.
In 1904 the average life expectancy in this country was 47 years; 14 percent of homes had bathtubs, 8 percent had phones, and a three-minute call from Denver to New York City cost $11. The average wage was 22 cents an hour, and the average worker made $200-$400 a year. Most births took place at home; most physicians had only limited training from medical schools considered "substandard"; and the five leading causes of death were pneumonia and influenza, tuberculosis, diarrhea, heart disease and stroke. Even then, 18 percent of all American households had at least one full-time servant or domestic.
Sometimes I wonder why, whatever class we're in, we aren't screaming that things in this country today are pretty awful good.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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