What Happened to “Middle Class?”

middle classThe number of contenders for the 2016 presidential election keeps growing. Turns out there’s one thing all of these hopefuls have in common: none of them want to use the term “middle class.”

The would-be candidates are opting for phrases like “hard-working taxpayers,” “ordinary Americans” or “working families” instead. According to this New York Times piece, that’s because the middle class no longer feels like a safe place to be.

The move away from “middle class” is the rhetorical result of a critical shift: After three decades of income gains favoring the highest earners and job growth being concentrated at the bottom of the pay scale, the middle has for millions of families become a precarious place to be.

A social stratum that once signified a secure, aspirational lifestyle, with a house in the suburbs, children set to attend college, retirement savings in the bank and, maybe, an occasional trip to Disneyland now connotes fears about falling behind, sociologists, economists and political scientists say.

The various professors quoted in the article point out that we don’t have a word for someone who works full-time but can’t afford a vacation or to send his kids to college. Sadly, the “middle class” is becoming a term of nostalgia.

This is also a reminder of how much words—and what words we use to identify ourselves—matter.

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