Are you middle class?

Middle Class in Texas

A little over two years ago, as Barack Obama took the oath of office for the second time, he alluded to the American Dream—the idea that this is a land of opportunity where anyone can rise economically to home ownership and economic security. “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.”

As the nation continues to recover slowly from the recession of 2008, politicians today apparently are engaging in the rhetoric of diminished expectations. The New York Times today is reporting that politicians of both major parties are shunning the term “middle class” as they struggle to find ways to appeal to voters. The phrases ranged from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “everyday Americans” to Ted Cruz’s ”hard working men and women across America.” 

The once ubiquitous term “middle class” has gone conspicuously missing from the 2016 campaign trail, as candidates and their strategists grasp for new terms for an unsettled economic era. The phrase, long synonymous with the American dream, now evokes anxiety, an uncertain future and a lifestyle that is increasingly out of reach.

The move away from “middle class” is the rhetorical result of a critical shift: After three decades of income gains favoring the highest earners and job growth being concentrated at the bottom of the pay scale, the middle has for millions of families become a precarious place to be.

Even amid the Texas Miracle of economic expansion, the state’s middle class has been shrinking, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust. Almost 48 percent of the households in Texas were middle class in 2000, but the number was down to 45 percent in 2013. The share of households spending at least 30 percent of their income on housing grew from 26 percent in 2000 to 31 percent in 2013. Pew defines the middle class as being between two-thirds and twice the median household income, which in 2010 meant between $39,400 and $118,000 nationally.

However, the Pew report differs from one issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas last year that showed Texas middle-income job growth exceeding that of the rest of the nation, by adding about 800,000 middle income jobs since 2000. 

Because there are regional differences in income and cost of living, Washington University self-described “computer geek” Hugh Chou devised a scale for measuring middle class by metro areas. To save you from having to navigate his database, I’ve posted a picture of the Texas results above. As you see, it is much easier to be upper class in the Lower Rio Grande Valley than it is to be middle class in Austin/Round Rock.

While the idea of the American Dream applies to all people, politically I’ve always thought of the rhetoric of the middle class to be an appeal to Anglo voters, white men and women who live above poverty but aren’t rich. The term also can apply those top earners who think of themselves as middle class because of that extraordinary income gap between being in the top 10 percent of earners and the top 1 percent.

In terms of Texas elections, the next presidential contest in 2016 will be an interesting look at whether the Democrats have lost rural America for the foreseeable future. Whether it is Texas or New York state, rural voters have shunned the Democratic Party in several elections past. And the same is true for Republicans in urban Texas and urban America. So the battleground in Texas is suburban, middle-class areas. The message of investing in the future so that all Texans can aspire to the American Dream can be a tough sale for economically shaken households faced with rising property taxes and hearing an implied message of: the government is taking your money and giving it to someone else.

At a time when staying in the middle class is almost as hard as getting there, the political rhetoric is changing.