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The Myth of the Middle Class

In the 1950s there arose the myth of America as a ‘middle-class society.’ How has this myth developed since then? What relation does it have to reality?

by Stephen Shenfield



8 min read

When ‘mainstream’ politicians and media pundits talk about the structure of American society, they focus mainly on a vaguely defined group called ‘the middle class.’ The middle class is considered the mainstay of society, a bulwark of social stability and cohesion. Indeed, the middle class is the symbolic representative of the whole society. The ‘typical Americans’ of TV sitcoms are almost always members of the middle class. (A rare exception was the Rosie Show, which featured a ‘working class’ family; low ratings soon led to its cancelation.) It is the aspirations of the middle class – home and car ownership, a complete set of household and electronic appliances, college education for the kids – that define the ‘American dream.’ 

Logically the middle class must be in the middle, but between what and what? Occasional reference is made to ‘the poor’ on one side and ‘the rich’ on the other. But these are minorities, atypical or marginal groups. The middle class is the majority. As for ‘the working class,’ even mentioning it is taboo in respectable company. Only dangerous radicals and extremists talk about ‘the working class.’ 

In fact, the middle class is the only class in our society, because ‘the poor’ and ‘the rich’ are not referred to as classes. Thus, American society is not divided into classes. It consists of one class plus a couple of outlying groups.  

Such is the picture of America drawn by ‘mainstream’ propagandists.   

The relentless emphasis on the middle class has its impact on public perceptions. When asked to which class they belong, about 60% of Americans claim to be middle class. However, a substantial minority – about 30% — do still call themselves ‘working class’ – a sign of resistance to the dominant ‘mainstream’ discourse.  

Distortion of Reality

The mainstream discourse distorts reality. It exaggerates divisions of secondary importance and obscures the division that is most fundamental.

One dividing line that is overdrawn is that between ‘the poor’ and the next category up, sometimes called ‘the near poor.’ Although it may be useful for certain purposes to identify a minority of especially poor people, there is a rapid turnover into and out of this group. Researchers into the dynamics of poverty have shown that welover one half of Americans are ‘poor’ at some time in their lives.[1] This is not to deny the existence of urban and rural pockets of persistent ‘inter-generational poverty.’ On the whole, however, it is more accurate to regard poverty not as the attribute of a separate group but as a phase in the life of the non-rich majority. 

For most Americans, including most of those said to be in the middle class, it takes only one major life mishap – loss of a well-paying job with benefits, a serious accident or illness in the family, a divorce – to plunge them into deep poverty. This is certainly true of the nearly 70% with less than $1,000 in savings (45% have no savings at all). Cases of personal bankruptcy filed in the United States in 2019 numbered 752,000; there are currently 276,000 homes in foreclosure. The title of one of Barbara Ehrenreich’s books sums it up: Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989). 

A dividing line that the mainstream discourse takes care not to highlight is that between ‘the rich’ and everyone else. In the terms popularized by Occupy Wall Street, between the 1% and the 99%. Or, in Marxian terms, between the capitalist class and the working class (broadly understood). Capitalists own and control the means of production, distribution, and communication, including the corporate media. Politicians are either capitalists themselves or serve them. Workers, lacking access to the means of life, have to sell their labor power to capitalists for a wage or salary.

This picture is admittedly somewhat simplified. The dividing line between the capitalist class and the working class is a little fuzzy and some groups fall outside the two basic classes (for instance, small farmers). Nevertheless, the two-class picture is at least a rough approximation of reality. The picture drawn by corporate media and Establishment politicians is not. 

The mainstream discourse arbitrarily divides what socialists call ‘the working class’ into two sharply contrasting categories. ‘Respectable’ workers are incorporated into ‘the middle class’ together with professionals and small businesspeople. Workers who do not qualify as ‘middle class’ are dumped in with ‘the poor.’ 

Consider what happened to a task force created by President Obama to consider ‘ways to halt the decline in the standard of living of working Americans.’ It was headed, incidentally, by Joe Biden, then vice president. Originally dubbed the White House Task Force on Working Families, at some point it became the White House Task Force on the Middle Class. Presumably it was decided that even if the word ‘working’ was not followed by ‘class’ it was best avoided. After all, it might remind people that there was such a thing as the working class. The change also implied that families who do not qualify as ‘middle class’ are undeserving of public concern.  

How the Myth Emerged and Developed

The myth of the middle class has not always existed. There was a time, not so very long ago, when the no one disputed the truth of the picture nowadays drawn only by ‘radical extremists.’ The basic division of society into capitalists and workers was held to be necessary, but its existence was obvious. No one thought of denying it. 

The new picture with ‘the middle class’ in central place emerged in the 1950s and has developed over time. The myth has taken three forms – the original ‘simple’ form, a ‘humanitarian’ form that prevailed in the 1960s, and a ‘toxic’ form that gradually took shape from the 1970s onward.  

The 1950s: ‘End of Ideology’

After World War Two, the American economy entered a long boom. Many workers also benefited from their membership in trade unions, finally legitimized by the New Deal policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This enabled them to achieve a standard of consumption previously beyond the reach of the working class. Workers’ families were now for the first time able to buy a home (with the aid of a mortgage), a car, a fridge and other household appliances. 

This really was an important new development. However, academic social theorists of the 1950s exaggerated its scope, overlooking the fact that many workers had still not been admitted to the paradise of ‘middle-class’ life. They also wrongly assumed that the expansion of the ‘middle class’ was irreversible. They concluded that class divisions and class-based ideologies were things of the past: the United States was now ‘the affluent society,’ ‘a middle-class society,’ i.e., essentially a one-class or classless society. Harold DeRienzo recalls:

Growing up in the 1950s, I was conditioned to believe that we lived in a classless society. This conditioning took place at home, in school, at church, and was constantly reinforced by the media.

The economic basis of this ‘classless society’ was a supposedly new type of ‘people’s capitalism’ marked by a much wider ownership of shares. In reality, even though it was no longer unheard of for a worker to own a few shares, share ownership remained highly concentrated.

The new outlook was embodied in a collection of essays by sociologist Daniel Bell, first published in 1960 and entitled The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties

The end of (class-based) ideology was to be proclaimed again by another academic at the start of the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union — Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992). And once again the darned creature would refuse to lie down and die! 

Early 1960s: Poverty Rediscovered

The complacency of ‘end of ideology’ sociology was punctured by the publication in 1962 of a book entitled The Other America: Poverty in the United States. Despite the fact that the politics of the author, Michael Harrington, were somewhat to the left of the Establishment – he was a ‘democratic socialist’ of the reformist variety, one of the founders of the Democratic Socialists of America – his expose of urban and rural poverty had a major impact on public perceptions. 

The myth of the middle class did not disappear: it merely assumed a somewhat more realistic form. The United States was still regarded as essentially a prosperous ‘middle-class’ society, but it was acknowledged that not everyone enjoyed the prosperity. Poverty was viewed as an anomaly within a basically sound system. It affected only a minority, albeit a large one – about one fifth of the population. ‘The poor’ were not one end of a spectrum but a group separate from the rest of society – a ‘second America,’ as the title of Harrington’s book indicated.

Thus there emerged a picture of American society as comprising two classes – a middle-class majority and a poor minority. The position of the rich minority in this picture is hard to define. Its existence is not denied: the very term ‘middle class’ implies the presence of not one but two other groups, one on each side. However, it remains in the shadows; the attention of the viewer is not drawn to it. 

Mid-1960s: Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’

If poverty was an anomaly within a basically sound system, might it not be eliminated by a well-designed program of reforms? And this was indeed the aim set by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 when he declared his ‘War on Poverty’ to create ‘the Great Society’: 

Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it (President Johnson, State of the Union Address, 1/8/64).   

The results of the ‘War on Poverty’ were significant but rather modest by comparison with its aim. Over the first five years the poverty rate declined by five percentage points to 14%. It has hovered around that level ever since. A common explanation of the limited success of the Great Society program is that its implementation came to a premature halt as funding was diverted to America’s burgeoning war in Vietnam. There is good reason to think, however, that the results would not have been very much better even if the program had been fully implemented.

The anti-poverty measures adopted in the mid-1960s were of various kinds. Some – food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid – provided direct material aid to poor people. Small loans were offered to poor farmers. But the main emphasis was placed on measures that aimed to reduce unemployment by ‘removing impediments to employment’ – in particular, support for schools in poor areas, Head Start, and schemes to give job training and work experience to young people from poor families. 

Those who believed that poverty could actually be ‘cured’ and ‘prevented’ by such means apparently made two curious assumptions. First, that ‘impediments to employment’ lie solely in the inadequate qualifications of job seekers; hiring practices and the demand for labor, for instance, have nothing to do with it. Second, that once people have jobs, however low their wages, they are no longer ‘poor.’ 

‘The poor’ are often identified with the unemployed and/or welfare recipients, even though the ‘working poor’ – people who work, in many cases at two jobs, but for low pay and usually without benefits – have usually (prior to Covid-19) made up 70% or so of those below the poverty line. Why do politicians and the media pay so little attention to the working poor? I think it is because their plight can be substantially improved only by intervening in the employment relationship, which politicians dependent on capitalist donors are unwilling to do. True, there are minimum wage laws, but the minimum wages are set at very low levels and, above all, these laws are hardly ever enforced.[2] In general, workers in the lower reaches of the wage spectrum – below, at, or a little above the minimum wage – are worse off than those who rely on welfare. That is why people will go to such lengths to remain on welfare.    

1970s—1990s: The Backlash Against Welfare

Much to the surprise and consternation of believers in ‘the affluent society,’ the postwar boom did not last forever. By the late 1970s it had come to an end. The generous mood that had inspired the ‘war on poverty’ dissipated. Establishment attitudes toward ‘the poor’ became mean and resentful. Politicians started to portray them as parasites who could get jobs if they really tried but preferred to enjoy a good life at the expense of the hardworking middle-class taxpayer. 

The new trend started with Richard Nixon, who in a speech in 1969 popularized the idea of ‘workfare’ – making welfare recipients work for their money. Ronald Reagan followed up, complaining in a 1976 campaign speech about ‘welfare queens’ and ‘strapping young bucks’ eating T-bone steaks at public expense. Here we find ‘the poor’ identified not only with welfare recipients but also with black people, despite the fact that the majority both of welfare recipients and of the working poor have always been white. Reagan curtailed many ‘Great Society’ programs; in 1981 he abolished Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity.

Scapegoating of the poor did not long remain a monopoly of Republican politicians. Bill Clinton took up the theme, promising in his 1992 presidential campaign to ‘end welfare as we know it.’ He greatly constricted access to welfare and transferred much of the responsibility to the states, which were henceforth free to spend federal ‘block grants’ as they wished. 

The Toxic Version of the Middle-class Myth

In the course of the backlash against welfare there emerged a toxic version of the middle-class myth. American society is still pictured as comprising two classes and they are still called by the same names – ‘the middle class’ and ‘the poor.’ However, the relationship between these two classes is now conceived in a very different way. The middle class has lost its superior status as benefactor of the unfortunate. The constant emphasis on the phenomenon of welfare fraud turns the middle class into a victim of ‘the poor,’ now viewed as a horde of parasites unjustly privileged by their undeserved welfare benefits. In fact, although by force of inertia these parasites are still referred to as ‘the poor,’ they are now perceived as being better off than the middle class. They are better off because they get what they need without working, while the middle class have to work hard for their living. The poor exploit the middle class.    

Part of the animus against welfare recipients, I suspect, has its origin in the belief that only the rich have the right to live without selling their labor power. After all, it is the rich who are ‘the leisure class,’ as the sociologist Thorstein Veblen called them.[3] They must surely experience the mere presence in society of another group of people enabled to live – albeit at a much lower standard – without selling their labor power as an insufferable challenge to their status. Perhaps this is why such efforts are made to find or create jobs even for people with severe physical or mental disabilities, despite the fact that they have to be accompanied by aides who in practice do most of the work.    

Note that the mythical picture drawn by the toxic version of the myth of the middle class bears a striking structural similarity to reality. The real picture also features a privileged parasitic minority exploiting a hardworking majority. The real parasites are the capitalist class, whose mansions, yachts, and planes weigh much more heavily on the backs of the working class than the welfare benefits of the poor. The toxic version of the middle-class myth channels the anger of members of the working class – those who still qualify for middle-class status – into a phony ‘class struggle’ designed to substitute for the real class struggle against the capitalist class.

It is remarkable that this audacious diversionary strategy on the part of the capitalist class should have proven so effective for so long. But then the most convincing lies are those that are modeled closely on the truth. 

Attacks on welfare will continue, but I do not expect it to be abolished altogether. The elimination of welfare would eliminate the target of the substitute ‘class struggle,’ preventing any further use of the diversionary strategy. Welfare must be preserved so that it can continue to be attacked.    


[1] A study conducted in 1999 estimated that 51.4% of Americans experience poverty by age 65. The figure must be somewhat higher when poverty in old age is taken into account. For an overview of the research, see: Stephanie Riegg Cellini, Signe-Mary McKernan, and Caroline Ratcliffe, ‘The Dynamics of Poverty in the United States: A Review of Data, Methods, and Findings,’ Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 27, Issue 3, Summer 2008, pp. 577-605. Preprint here.

[2] A Politico investigation in 2018 found a sweeping failure to enforce minimum wage laws. Over half of the states have just a handful of investigators to handle violations; several states have none at all. Most cases go unreported. Even when a court orders payment of back wages owed there is no way to collect if the employer refuses to pay. Over 40% of court-ordered payments are never made. 

[3] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, first published in 1899. For a recent republication see here.

Tags: Capitalist Class, middle class, the poor, the rich, working class

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I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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