My father — a lifelong union electrician with a perma-locked elbow, bum shoulder and unceasing aches to show for it — is a man of mantras. One mantra in particular has always stood out: “Work with your brain, not your back.” It’s easy to imagine my parents, a secretary and an electrician, as characters in some unwritten Arthur Miller play, postcards for the middle class. And like the middle class, they’re full of contradictions. For as much as my father is a union electrician with a broken body to show for it, he’s also a highly-skilled tradesman with comprehensive health insurance, retirement benefits and a good salary. Sure, it’s money earned in manholes and sewage treatment plants, but a dollar is a dollar, right?
Few concepts are as simultaneously important and baseless, undying and mercurial as the middle class. What is the middle class, anyway? If you had to guess, what income range defines it? I asked this question to a bunch of my friends, and found that their answers varied greatly: Some said $30,000, most hovered around $100,000, while one even capped it at $300,000. What united these answers, however, was hesitation, the full knowledge that they were complete guesses. So many Yale students — from children of lawyers to children of corporate lawyers — are all too keen on describing themselves as “middle class” or, even better, “upper middle class,” everyone’s favorite conveniently ambiguous, upper-bound-less sect of society. And yet, when asked to actually define where the middle class falls, cognitive dissonance abounds.
My point is not to nitpick people’s perceptions of their class standing (okay, maybe a little), but a reality check is in order. Pew Charitable Trusts classifies “middle class” as households earning 67% to 200% of a state’s median income. Given vast state-by-state inequality, their analysis produces a wide income range for the middle class: a lower bound of around $25,000 in Mississippi to $144,000 in Maryland. Of course, determining class by income alone is reductive at best and dangerous at worst. Nonetheless, if you are a student at Yale, odds are that you’re not middle class. The median family income of Yale students is $192,000, with more students — nearly one in five — coming from the top one percent than the bottom sixty.
This dissonance between Yale’s self-definition of the (upper) middle class and the reality of the middle class is dangerous for two reasons. The first is simple. Yale produces leaders, and if our leaders believe that the middle class is taking spa days and going to day school, then the middle class is doing just fine and there is absolutely nothing to worry about. This could not be less true. The second reason cuts deeper.
Upper middle class identity is a convenient one. It admits — to some extent — the economic privileges of wealth, while absolving oneself of the political, cultural and racial connotations of “rich,” or, even worse, “upper class.” But, let’s be real: “Upper class” sounds kind of silly, anyway. It sounds antiquated, even foreign — and that’s on purpose.
America has historically shied away from discussions of class. Reasons include the hauntings of slavery, aspirational whiteness and rugged individualism, to name a few. But, more simply: when class is a non-category, class-based exploitation becomes a non-issue. “Middle-classness” is thus the perfect fiction: neither above nor below, but always in-between. As John Steinbeck put it, “the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” This is truer nowhere than here at Yale.
Anthropologist Christine Walley argues that class “is about the trajectories of our lives — individually and collectively.” Yale markets itself as both a reproductive organ of the upper class and as a gateway to it. Even though the archetypal careers that Yale has historically provided springboards towards — journalism, academia, etc. — by measure of income, hardly provide “middle-class jobs,” they’re still deemed worthy of a Yale education. Even though sanitation workers, plumbers and electricians all have higher average salaries, the aforementioned careers provide a different kind of capital: social, intellectual, cultural, and at Yale, those are priceless! The paradox, however, is that this capital is only valued to the extent that it can be converted into actual capital. We can pore over the Odyssey as easily as we pore over supply and demand, largely because English majors and economics majors can both slide right into finance or consulting.
It is here, at this great gateway and bastion of class, where a rigorous understanding of class and its extremely real manifestations is most necessary. And yet, it is here that “class,” especially “middle class” is thrown around so baselessly that it approaches meaninglessness. For students caught in the crosshairs of past and future class identity, for a society in which the false promise of middle classness is ever more elusive, this baselessness is destructive.
For now, let’s define the middle class as those (at least) one degree of separation from desolation. Their car can break down, they can break a leg, they can lose their job, and they’ll still be alright. For most of us, that sounds normal. For my family, that degree of separation is provided by their union status. My family — and the golden-age vision of middle-classness it represents — is a dying breed. For Yale students, that degree of separation is our education. The private sector unionization rate is down to 6.4%, down from 20% in 1983; Yale’s acceptance rate is 6.3%. A stable life should not be this exclusive.
Even if the terms we use for class are fictitious, the inequality it attempts to describe is very real. Class matters — it shapes our physical, emotional, economic and social lives. We must work towards an understanding of class that does not erase gender, race or the countless other factors that cut across social and economic hierarchies. Rather, we should aim for one that is inclusive of those factors and helps make sense of them. If we want to do anything about the ever-growing inequality that poisons our society, we have to start by understanding class. And what better place to start than as the Odyssey does: in the middle.
Eric Krebs is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .