The "middle class" has been very much in the news lately. It loomed large in the last presidential election, and it remains front-and-center in the interminable debates in Washington over the national debt and even the future of the nation.
Indeed, one is led to believe that as goes the middle class, so goes America. And perhaps that is the case.
A problem arises, however, when we try to identify the middle class, as in the process we get caught up in discussions of income levels, education, jobs, and, of course, values.
By most estimates, the middle class constitutes anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of the American population. But many of these same sources comment on how different the upper- middle class differs from the lower-middle class and even questions whether they belong in the same demographic.
Moreover, although much honored today, popular perceptions of middle-class values have varied throughout American history. We need only look back to the 1960s when middle- class values, seen then as emphasizing conformity and traditional gender roles, were labeled "bourgeois" and shunned by those constituting the counterculture.
Although not necessarily the result of that low point in the history of middle-class values, there is ample evidence to suggest that the size and composition of the nation's middle class has been changing dramatically ever since.
Over the past 40 years, economists and sociologists have pointed out, the divide between the lower- and upper-middle classes has become so great as to situate them as mutually exclusive entities.
The lower middle class, they argue, has been increasingly marked by declining economic circumstances, chronic unemployment, lower educational attainment and dysfunctional family life – comparatively little of which can be seen among the upper-middle class.
One can point to any number of factors leading to this divide, to which needs to be added the even more sobering observation that the troubled lower-middle class is increasingly being populated by those who were once part of the "solid" middle class.
And so too can be seen a troubling correlation, and most would argue a cause and effect, between the above mentioned factors and the decline of what have long been held to be middle-class values.
Among those values – those upon which the nation has been built – are industriousness (whether at work or in school), honesty (including abiding by the law), marriage (including out-of-wedlock births), and religion (not only in church attendance but also by self-identification with any particular religion or religion at all).
All appear to be in a downward – dare we say death – spiral.
It is a sobering thought, to be sure.
Bryan Le Beau is an historian and vice president for Academic Affairs at the University of Saint Mary.
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