The notion of social class is a somewhat arbitrary construct that attempts to place people in related groupings. It involves several different dimensions such as income, wealth, education and occupation. It is usually vague and inexact and used very differently depending on the purpose of those employing it. However, there are real and significant differences between the situation of Meg Whitman and a maid who scrubs out toilets at a motel. Any argument that tried to claim that there were no important differences would be patently absurd. There are real differences between a lawyer with a six figure income and that maid. There are still differences between the maid and a nurse or a teacher. The reality is that the circumstances of the American workforce are really quite diverse. However, for sometime now the national political conversation has attempted to portray America as a nation of near identical middle class individuals.
Once upon a time there was a clear acknowledgement that Americans were divided into several different classes. There was an upper class, a middle class, a working class and people who were identified as the poor. A couple of generations ago it was easier to tell the difference between the middle and working classes. Working class people had different sorts of jobs. They went to work in places like factories or construction sites. They dressed in work clothes. Work and wages fluctuated depending on the state of the economy. Middle class people worked in offices and dressed differently. They got salaries instead of wages and their employment was much more stable.
During the 1930s the American working class developed a political identity and organized to promote political and social goals. Labor unions were the most significant vehicle for that organization. They became a major force in American politics with an impact that extended beyond the interests of their members. The policy initiatives referred to as the new deal began the building of what we now call the social safety net. For a long time the considerable political clout of the unions was a major force in extending such provisions and in defeating attempts to roll them back.
Many things have changed in 21st C America. Automation and outsourcing have eliminated many industrial jobs. White collar service work has become far more prevalent. If you walk through the maze at a large corporation it is often difficult to tell who has which jobs. Everybody sits at a desk and uses a computer. Meg has a private office with a couple of secretaries, but from there down it gets fuzzy. The people doing data entry and taking customer service calls are living not far above the poverty line. There are fewer of them as those jobs also get eliminated by automation and outsourcing.
Union membership in the private sector has now fallen below 7%. Elimination of labor unions has been a fundamental goal of the financial elite since the end of WW II. There is now a full out attack on unions in the public sector. In practical terms they have succeeded to the point that unions no longer have a major voice in American political policy. This has made it possible for the politicians to stop talking about a working class. They all claim to be protecting the interest of the middle class. The notion that there is a significant and growing number of people who are too poor to afford the basic necessities of life is something that nobody wants to talk about. Even the ill-fated Occupy movement attempted to gain traction with the slogan we are the 99%.
This change in identity and political discourse is not just a philosophical issue. It has very practical implications for what is happening to the lives of Americans. Telling Americans that they are all middle class implies a notion that they are securely tied to the economic system and can expect economic security. That security doesn't exist for many and for others it is steadily shrinking.
At election time the Democrats and Republicans engage in rhetoric that allows the media to create its version of a political show that gives the impression that there is a real and significant policy choice to be made on election day. However, economic policies have been pulled to the right for over 30 years. Nothing has ever happened to move them back toward the center, regardless of which party is in power. This is the result of an absence of an organized voiced for the interests of the working class that still exist but has been rendered politically invisible. Things have now reached the point that a Democratic president is proposing to cut Social Security.