Thinking About the Middle Class and the 99 Percent

by Nancy Jane Moore

While reading Suzanna Andrews’s excellent piece on Elizabeth Warren in the current Vanity Fair, I came across this quote from a speech Warren gave to a conference of bankers:

We cannot run our country without a strong middle class. We cannot run a democracy without a strong middle class.

Until I read those words, I’d been mildly cynical about the use of the term “middle class” in political rhetoric. I thought politicians were using it because most people like to see themselves as middle class, and because for some reason championing the rights of the poor and working classes has become a no-no if you want to get elected in the U.S.

But in reading Warren’s words, I had a sudden flash of insight: A healthy middle class provides the real stability for a country. These are the people who have enough not just to get by, but to save for the future. They’re the people who expect to go to college, who expect to have careers rather than just jobs, who own houses, who expect their kids to have a good life.

Having spent many years working as legal services lawyer, I’ve always taken the side of the truly poor — the folks trying to get by on minimum wage or no job at all, the ones who don’t even have a chance at an adequate high school education, much less college — and the working people who have managed to get something, perhaps a home, but who are always one family crisis away from financial disaster.

The middle class — of which I am a part — often struck me as representing more of the problem than the solution.

But the growing gap between the very wealthy and everyone else in the U.S. (not to mention in far too much of the rest of the world) sets society up for a world in which everyone but the very well-off is one health crisis, one car wreck, one job loss away from disaster. Obviously that is not the definition of a stable society.

Now a stable middle class can become complacent, which keeps it from questioning things done in its name. We’ve seen plenty of that in the U.S. The Occupy Wall Street movement owes some of its success to the fact that the middle class in the U.S. is now under siege along with the poor and working people. Perhaps it is politically valuable for the middle class to come under attack.

Warren’s words have convinced me that a strong middle class, and such seemingly mild reforms as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she championed — perhaps not such a mild reform given the incredible attacks against it — are important in keeping our country healthy.

As I sit here contemplating the value of the middle class, it occurs to me that science fiction is a particularly middle class genre. That is, many SF stories are about educated people trying to solve problems. They aren’t usually the richest people, and they aren’t usually in charge, but they are people with a stake in the system.

I’m sure some readers will immediately come up with examples of stories that don’t fit this mold, but I am willing to argue that the growth of SF as a genre is tied to the growth of an educated middle class that could look beyond its own needs.

For that matter, pursuit of science and technology is tied to the middle class as well. Yes, some people in the high tech world have become insanely rich, but I don’t think most of them dove into the work for the money. And the people I most associate with science and technology — the scientists and engineers who worked at NASA during the period leading up to the Moon landing — were solidly middle class. (I grew up near the Johnson Space Center and went to church with those folks.)

Now I’m not arguing for a class system here — I’d like everyone to have the security and opportunities commonly associated with the middle class — but only observing that the stability that comes from having a certain level of comfort and education provides value to society, not just to those who enjoy it.

U.S. SF is sometimes scorned as too conservative by those in other countries, but perhaps it is merely too unthinkingly middle class. Now would be a good time for U.S. SF writers to look at both the value and the weaknesses of the middle class and to incorporate it in their work.

(BTW, does it strike anybody but me as incredibly odd that Vanity Fair, a magazine chockful of ads for items only the rich can afford that wastes numerous pages on inane articles about celebrities, is also providing some of the hardest-hitting journalism about what’s going on in our society?)

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Flashes of IlluminationFlashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.

My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.

Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.

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Thinking About the Middle Class and the 99 Percent — 6 Comments

  1. Good piece, Nancy. There’s good and bad in the American middle class. You could go on forever about that, but the way I see it the huge middle class is what has given America its strength. It’s eroding away, now though, and we are losing our power, effect, and presence because the thing that has given America this huge middle class (and a pretty good lifestyle)–the presence of unions–is going away. The unions shrink, so does the middle class.

    Middle class in sf? Well, the writers come from the middle class, the readers are in the middle class. I think that’s why the stories middle class-centric. But good point, why should it be that way? Aren’t we writing about aliens?

    Funny about Vanity Fair. Not sure I’m quite ready to get a scrip, but maybe.

  2. My father subscribes to Vanity Fair, which is why I see it. I don’t think that he, at 93, is their target audience, but he was a reporter for most of his life and he really respects the journalism.

  3. I keep an eye on the international press, and I note that although in Ireland they cut the budget by 14%, and in Iceland even more, the citizens are fairly calm about it. Why? Because the cuts are borne evenly by the entire population. It is the unfairness of the cutbacks in this country (borne almost entirely by the poor and the middle class) that gets them out into the streets.
    A fun and easy link for calculating your own percentile is up at the Wall Street Journal: http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2011/10/19/what-percent-are-you/?fb_ref=article_top&fb_source=profile_multiline
    Note that it works by household income.

  4. The middle class has always been the backbone of society. We are the primary consumers and producers. We are the entrepreneurs and innovators. We are the largest group of voters and taxpayers. Revolutions are rarely successful until the middle class endorses the need for a change.

    Right now, America’s middle class is in serious trouble. The recession hit the middle class hard which is why the economy is having trouble recuperating. Instead of consuming and producing, the middle class is struggling to pay the mortgage and buy groceries and gas and worrying over diminished retirement accounts. The middle class has little excess income right now, and what there is, is being hoarded away in saving accounts and long-term investments.

  5. One of the great strengths of the middle class in any society is that its members simultaneously have enough cushion that they can plan for long-term goals, but have enough experience working for a living that they understand the value of hard work.

    When you’re poor, you’re constantly focusing on surviving right now. Get the next meal. Get the next rent check to keep a roof over your head. Replace the items of clothes that are disintegrating right now. Next week or next year or next century will just have to take care of itself, because there’s no energy left to worry about them, and trying to make plans just sets you up to have them kicked apart by the inevitable misfortunes that are out of your control.

    Conversely, when you’re wealthy, it’s way too easy to get such a disconnect with the working class and the poor that you have no idea of what it’s like to be dependent upon exchanging your labor for a paycheck to obtain the basic necessities of life. Work is something to do to keep busy or to feel successful, so you can quit a job that becomes unpleasant or doesn’t make you feel fulfilled, because it’s not the only thing standing between your family and destitution. Often the wealthy literally don’t realize that they’re effectively saying “let them eat cake” when they offer various laughable bits of advice for the unfortunate to better themselves.

    There are other reasons for the current problems facing American society, including the rise of an attitude that the rules of the game are a meta-game to be played to your own benefit, and a whole generation of people who grew up not sure if there would even be a future and thus have difficulty deferring gratification, but the erosion of the middle class with its foot in both worlds is a big factor. And it’s really been going on for several decades, but has just reached crisis proportions now.

  6. I agree with Midnightblooms.

    Not only is the middle class in trouble (and not just in the US, but also in Europe, which is where I am writng from), but it also seems to me that the gap between rich and poor is becoming ever so expanded. I worry for the future, girls and boys…