The Middle Class

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Bernard Hoffman

A family in front of its home in a new housing development

"America's middle class is hurting," said Vice President Joe Biden last month when he announced the formation of a Middle-Class Task Force, which will meet for the first time on Feb. 27. The recession, with its job losses, mortgage defaults and stock-market tumbles, has threatened Americans' ability to make ends meet. "It is our charge to get the middle class — the backbone of this country — up and running again," the Vice President declared, and one could practically hear the cheers emanating from single-family homes with two-car garages. But what exactly is the American middle class?

Class is an inherently nebulous concept, and although the U.S. government defines poverty (presently, it's anything under $22,000 for a family of four), it does not define what it means to be middle class. The U.S. Census Bureau says the median income in the U.S. is about $51,000 a year, but how far does the "middle" stretch? According to a 2008 Pew Research Center survey, half of Americans self-identify as middle class. (See pictures of Americans at home.)

Our modern image of the middle class comes from the post–World War II era. The 1944 GI Bill provided returning veterans with money for college, businesses and home mortgages. Suddenly, millions of servicemen were able to afford homes of their own for the first time. As a result, residential construction jumped from 114,000 new homes in 1944 to 1.7 million in 1950. In 1947, William Levitt turned 4,000 acres of Long Island, New York, potato farms into the then largest privately planned housing project in American history. With 30 houses built in assembly-line fashion every day — each with a tree in the front yard — the American subdivision was born.

Then came the cars. And the backyard barbecues. And the black-and-white TVs. Ozzy and Harriet, Lucy and Ricky, Leave it to Beaver. In September 1958, Bank of America tested its first 60,000 credit cards (later named Visa) in Fresno, Calif. Within a decade, Americans had signed up for more than 100 million credit cards. Today, the number tops 1 billion. African Americans were able to pull themselves into the middle-class bracket through the social gains of the civil rights movement, though a disproportionate number still live below the poverty line. (Read the 1974 TIME article "America's Rising Black Middle Class.")

Today, most middle-class Americans are homeowners. They have mortgages, at least some college education and a professional or managerial job that earns them somewhere between $30,000 and $100,000 a year. Although the suburban stereotype still holds, the middle class is just as likely to be found in urban centers (rural, not so much), and 70% of them have cable and two or more cars. Two-thirds have high-speed Internet, and 40% own a flat-screen TV. They have several credit cards each and a lot of luxury goods, but they still believe that others have more than they do. In 1970, TIME described middle America as people who "sing the national anthem at football games — and mean it."

That might be because the middle class is slightly more conservative than liberal (over half oppose gay marriage). Yet they are split fairly evenly between political parties and can often swing an election because — duh — there are so many of them. They went for Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008. When Ronald Reagan asked Americans in 1980, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" he was speaking to the middle class. A 1979 public-opinion survey found a rising number of middle-class Americans felt that their lives were getting worse, and it was with those people that his words resonated. In 1997, in the middle of the dot-com bubble but before Monica Lewinsky, middle-class optimism hit a record high — 57% felt they were moving upward — but it has been sliding back down ever since. A 2008 survey found that roughly half of Americans think they've made no progress and 31% consider themselves worse off than they were five years ago. (See pictures of crime in Middle America.)

Vice President Biden attempted to define middle-class Americans as people who would find it difficult to miss more than two paychecks, and he wasn't far off; with wage increases failing to keep pace with inflation, about 21% of middle-class Americans have spent themselves to the limit. Personal bankruptcies rose by a third last year and mortgage defaults — well, they're moving beyond subprime borrowers and hitting those with previously high credit scores. On Feb. 27, Biden and eight members of his task force, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, will meet at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss the rescue of the middle class. Their first task? Creating green jobs. The committee believes that building environmentally friendly homes will help decrease middle-class homeowners' electricity and heating bills. That is, of course, if they have a home they can still afford.

Read TIME's 1986 article on the middle class.

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