Abigail Clauhs (Boston University) on Peacemaking in Class Warfare: Part II

By: Abigail Clauhs

August 31, 2012

Abigail Clauhs (Boston University) on Peacemaking in Class Warfare: Part II

The middle class is an easy place to fall.
If we're going to talk about class divides, this is something we can't ignore. In America, land of the Protestant work ethic, the middle class has a mythical place in our national consciousness. Politicians from both sides talk constantly of "saving the middle class.” The latest Pew Research Center survey on the middle class is entitled "Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier: The Lost Decade of the Middle Class."

Meanwhile, "the poor" are seen as completely separate, with different policies and political positioning, ones that conjure up words like "social programs" (for liberals) or "welfare state" (for conservatives). But what we have to realize is that lines between classes have blurred. To pit "the poor" and "the middle class" against each other, as if they are so very different, only exacerbates class tensions.

I come from a WASP-y, typical "middle class" town in the South. Big houses, shiny cars, well-manicured women and front lawns. We are smack dab in the Bible Belt and full of soccer moms driving Humvees. Yet I know families who have foreclosed out of their multi-million dollar homes and ended up living crammed in one hotel room, the parents and the kids putting in long hours at the local restaurants to make the minimum payments on what they owe. Like a house of shiny credit cards, these suburban middle-class white-picket-fence perfections have come tumbling down. And many of the ones that haven't tumbled yet are on the brink, struggling to keep up with a lifestyle and social set while drowning under the surface with bills and loans and payments.

My generation, coming of age in the Great Recession, seems to have been particularly affected by this downward slide of the middle class. In fact, according to that Pew survey, 47 percent of middle class adults say that they expect that their children's standard of living will be worse off than or the same as theirs. I have Millennial friends who live in trailers, who go to community college, who have joined the military because they just couldn't afford higher education at all. There are young people who work the late shift at IHOP and live over their parents' garage, trying to make ends meet. Most of them had cars and exotic vacations in high school, the latest iPhones, and new toys. They could have been placed securely in the middle class back then.

I, too, have firsthand experience with the precarious place that the middle class can be. I know what it feels like to lose your health insurance, to realize what the cost of your medicine is when it's no longer a co-pay. To watch your parents go to interview after interview, praying that this time they'll be offered a job. It's scary, and I think a lot of that fear is what causes people to listen when the politicians talk about "saving the middle class," making the phrase such an effective campaign plank that both Republicans and Democrats are using it. But it's not as if the middle class is on an island—or a pedestal—by itself.

I'm not asking us to pity the middle class—indeed, even at their worst moments, they are still better off than the many Americans living below the poverty line and sometimes on the streets. But it is important to remember that there is not an "us" and "them." Or an "us" and a "rich them" and "poor them." We are all people, all human. If we are going to be "a society at peace with itself" we must realize our class divides do not separate us as much as we think they do. And we have to remember, while they may be easy places to fall from, they are much, much harder to climb to. It's not just the middle class that the politicians should be talking about saving; it's all of us.

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