For decades, the vast majority of Americans have seen themselves as "middle class" or "working class." Even during earlier downturns, so few people called themselves lower class that scholars routinely lumped them with working class. Activists for the poor often avoid the term, deeming it an insult.So much for raising self-esteem by way of self-delusion.
When people call themselves lower class, "we'll say, 'You're not lower than someone else. You just have less money,'" said Michaelann Bewsee, co-founder of Arise for Social Justice, a Massachusetts low-income rights group. But many don't consider it insulting today, Bewsee said.
"They're just reflecting their economic reality," she said.
For many, "the feeling is that things are not likely to get better any time soon," said Michael Zweig, director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at Stony Brook University.The concept of the industrial reserve army is 150 years old. Consciousness of your status in that army requires additional information.
Last year, less than 55% of Americans agreed that "people like me and my family have a good chance of improving our standard of living," the lowest level since the General Social Survey first asked the question in 1987. An unusually high share of the unemployed — more than 4 million Americans as of August — have been out of work for six months or longer.
Jobless people have long been more likely than other Americans to call themselves lower class, but in recent years people who work at least part time have been increasingly likely to do so too. Activists say workers are frustrated as jobs with fewer hours and less pay have proliferated, a hallmark of the sluggish recovery.
"It's not surprising if the American worker is thinking, 'I'm working harder than I've ever worked, yet I'm being paid less — and I'm working two or maybe three jobs,'" said Lola Smallwood Cuevas, project director of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center. "It creates a feeling that you're trapped."
Census data show poverty rates were just as high in 1983 and 1993 — years when far fewer Americans called themselves "lower class." One difference this time around, some scholars suggested, is the widening gap between rich and poor.The new thinking, though, illustrates a class-consciousness different from the version propounded in Marxian political economy.
Last year, the richest 10% of Americans enjoyed more than half of the income nationwide — the biggest share in nearly a century, a recent UC Berkeley study showed. In countries around the world, the starker the difference between rich and poor, the more likely people are to think of themselves as worse off, said Robert Andersen, a professor of social science at the University of Toronto.
People seem aware of the growing gap. When Americans are asked how much chief executives and unskilled workers make, they have reported bigger differences over time, said Leslie McCall, a Northwestern University sociologist who studies attitudes about inequality. McCall added that the media also paid more attention to inequality during the Occupy Wall Street protests and the last presidential race, making "the 99%" a new catchphrase for the struggling.
High school dropouts are much more likely to call themselves lower class, but the numbers have also jumped among Americans who spent at least some time in college, the General Social Survey shows. From 2002 to 2012, the "lower class" among Americans with one to four years of college more than doubled — from 2.6% to 5.8%.
Besides facing new stresses and inequalities, Americans might be thinking differently about class today.Yes, that working class entailed a union card or a journeyman's license, a seniority system or a sole proprietorship with a fleet of white vans. It may not be a conceptual error for a person attempting to hold things together with three part-time jobs to view himself as lower-class, rather than as a member of the lumpen-proletariat. And let us not rule out the possibility that at least some of those collegians have been sucked in by slick marketing and packaging, and rendered unemployable by some combination of access-assessment-remediation-retention and business lite degrees.
University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen, who pointed out on his blog the rising numbers of people identifying as lower class, hypothesized that more struggling twentysomethings were doing so because fewer have been raised in union households. Many people told the Los Angeles Times they had no idea what separated the working class from the lower class.
"Working class used to be a term of pride," said Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director for Class Action, a nonprofit focused on class issues. "That's somewhat faded out."