About 1953 I asked my mom, because I was facing high school and expecting to be criticized and hazed, "Are we middle class?" After a pause, she said, "I guess so." I asked, "What's our family income? About $9,000?" I don't know where I got that figure. "I guess so," she said. She truly did not know. At that point she herself advanced the money for each month and was paid back by my father when she presented the receipts.
Now I make a little over a thousand dollars a month and live pretty much the way we lived in 1953 except for the computer. I consider myself class X, formidably educated but basically broke. The equating of education with lots of money was a canard then and is more so now. If you want a good income, learn a trade.
I've come to the conclusion that the middle class is something like the British idea of the genteel poor, people who don't have much money -- certainly not amounts that would make them as secure as barons of the land -- but believe they are as smart and possibly as educated as lords and ladies. This has led to the American myth of equality, considered a good thing.
Equality is related to democracy in that one vote by a poor or stupid man is as valid as a vote by a rich and intelligent persons -- that a vote by a woman or a different race is as valid as votes by the sameoldsameold. This worked better before the oppressed began to be feisty and admit that they saw the world differently, so they voted against power. Then the rich and crafty went to manipulating the system and stifling the media so as to guarantee the vote. They weren't even necessarily people in this country.
So the quality of equality went to moral grounds and accepted the Catholic or Universalist value of all souls instead of the Protestant grim condemnation and destruction of those who are wrong, which became "evil" which became "not the way the leaders think."
Since defiant people began to vote in their own self-interest, the powers that be set about eliminating them. Out go people with no "proper ID." People who live in the wrong place. People who never get acknowledged as existing. Voting stations only accessible by cars. Poll taxes. This diminishes the principle of democracy, that it should be guided by the people -- ALL the people in the nation, because that IS the nation. But the worst blow is losing confidence that any poor, disempowered people are smart, informed, or dynamic enough to vote or even WANT to vote.
The guy-on-the-street idea that democracy claims everyone to decide on the fate of the nation has expanded into the idea that limited as one's life may be, one still knows what the majority bottom line is. (They don't worry about how it got to be so convincing -- this is evidence-free.) Cranky old guys in Valier feel free to call the mayor and tell him what to do without any facts. Opinion reigns.
My own family was confident that they were the "best" family on the block. We had more books than anyone. My father's father was an educated Scot; my mother's father was a successful contractor. My grandmothers had been chosen for their middle class skills: playing the piano, reciting poetry, needlework like embroidery or tatting and fancy baking. But as a family we were rooted in agriculture, as known in the grandparent generation, and kept most of those values. Every now and again the parents got nervous about how middle-class they actually were and expected me and my sibs to achieve in order to prove belonging -- worthiness. All three of us got college degrees with the help of scholarships and military service.
Most of the neighborhood people were mechanics in the larger sense, often with backgrounds from Europe, immigrating in reaction to World Wars. In the apartment buildings, four-plexes with minimal fifth basement abodes, were people who were poorer, but saving for a better future. They left when the boats began to rise on post-war recovery. I never heard any of them talk politics or even voting. None volunteered, as my mother did, to be on the vote counting board. They were guarded, innerly.
As time has gone on and reverse or sub-history has torn down one hero and achievement after another, monument or not; vividly showing the sub-human existence of a major fraction of world people; dynamiting the idea of progress as an unquestionable good; decommissioning the WWII recovery, and abandoning the idea of virtue -- as all that stuff has been happening, I've also been searching myself as for fleas and undermining my own confidence that I belonged to the best family in the neighborhood. The church and school -- all kinds of communities -- went down to ignominy easily. I never did find a group of people where the best of the neighborhoods lived. "Best" is an empty concept. This is paralyzing. And by now I have found a LOT of fleas. I'm deeply changed.
It baffles those who thought they had me pegged and sought to enlist me in their projects. To them I appear to have abandoned the middle class and gone off to nowhere, a place where I babble in reaction to something invisible. What use is it? They don't understand the deep pleasure of understanding, of explaining puzzles about existence. They don't think about Deep Time (long long before even the existence of the planet) or Thick History (what was some minority doing during the juggernaut narratives?) or the amazement of sub-cellular bodies; but they really love trendy little factoids. Fashion. The illusion of knowing something.
My mother was like that. Her greeting to me on the phone was always "what's new?" Even she was critical of the most middle-class thing she knew, which was needlepoint cushions for the Westminster Presbyterian Church pews where she had been a member for decades, where she had buried her husband and admired the bagpiping minister, married me off, and volunteered in the church office. http://westprespdx.org/needlepoint-project It wasn't the needlepoint itself, or even the snobbery of its choices of image, or the promotion of something people sit on into public tours by admirers. She was angry because those specific women who sat in a huddle doing the needlework wouldn't include her. She wasn't rich or important enough. So much for the presumption of equality.
Nevertheless, she pursued their standards, their way of dressing, their events and values. The same is true of my cousins: they are all self-consciously middle-class, maybe UPPER middle-class. It's a culture that supported women's magazines for many decades and followed Martha Stewart onto YouTube.
In a sense, I'm a traitor. My mother was very angry when I went to U of C Div School, which is far beyond simply being a church-goer. She thought it meant she wasn't good enough, and she was right. It was worse when she couldn't understand my attempts at explanation -- which I soon gave up. In fact, I'm even a traitor to the Div School, because the turn towards embodiment and the physiology of emotion as valid thought has made all the precedent-based navel-gazing of famous philosophers quite irrelevant and maybe even ridiculous. A whole category (that my mother admired) of handsome brainy young men who considered a Ph.D. in philosophy to be confirmation of their superiority have been dumped, much to their rage.
So -- I avoid nicely dressed mothers and self-absorbed college sophomores and find that's a good strategy. I'm Class X. As long as I have enough to eat and pay the electrical bill, I'm winning the game. But I stay away from my cousins because I only upset them.