Whither the Working Class Hero?

"A working class hero is something to be" - John Lennon

Dear John,

What do you think about a "Working Class Hero" remix? Maybe change the chorus a bit. "A working class hero was something to be..."

In the years before your death, compassionate politics focused on the poor and the working class. The politics of today, at least the "compassionate conservative" variety, has cut-and-run from the "War on Poverty," proclaiming the half-hearted effort a failure. In the new millennium, the "War on the Middle Class" is all the rage.

Oddly enough, John, serious people -- mostly Art Laffer lovin,' Ron Paul Republicans -- still argue we live in a "classless society," which means you're considered a "radical" provocateur of "class warfare" if you talk about class out loud. It's classy not to talk about class. Apparently, panhandling policies geared toward removing the poor from sight aren't enough. Now, we don't want to even hear from poor folk. Today's motto is: the poor should not be seen, or heard. Next stop: eugenics. Survival of the richest.

It's no longer compassionate to serve the poor anything other than a nice, warm cup of shut-the-hell-up to go with their healthy portion of Bill Cosby sermon. Outside of pious worship services and stop-gap charity organizations, you can't talk about poverty without explicitly or implicitly implying that the poor deserve to be poor because they're stupid and lazy.

Even the leading Democrat candidates are careful not to utter the words "poor" or "working-class" in their speeches. It's all about "the middle class" -- a phrase more slippery than a hockey rink covered in Crisco.

Of course, there's lots of vague and vacuous verbiage slithering out of politicians mouths. Words like "change" and "hope" and "experience." And "middle class" -- for which, there's simply no consensus on how to clearly define. Ask the world's economists for a definition, line their answers up next to each other, and you still couldn't reach a conclusion.

OK, that's an exaggeration. Economists have a squishy sense of what kind of loot qualifies as middle-class. But even that's misleading because being middle-class isn't just about income. What's middle-class on Cape Cod is different than what's middle-class in Charlotte, N.C. or Marin Country, California, for example. Depending on where you live, the price of middle-class life varies.

And depending on what expert you ask, middle-class income ranges from $40,000 to $100,000 a year, give or take. But if you ask Mr. and Mrs. Average American, you'll get a much different picture. According to the National Opinion Research Center, 50 percent of families who earn between $20,000 and $40,000 a year think of themselves as "working class" or "middle-class." Nearly 40 percent of families earning between $40,000 and $60,000 annually, and 16 percent of families who earn over $110,000 a year, think of themselves as "middle class."

Congress recently asked its research service to define "middle class." Using 2005 Census Bureau data, and beginning with a look at income levels, CRS found 40 percent of the nearly 115 million households in the U.S. earned less than $36,000 a year. The next 40 percent rung up the economic ladder made between $36,000 and $91,705 annually. The top 20 percent made $91,705 or more.

But, as MSNBC reported, "those numbers don't adequately reflect the state of mind of those who consider themselves middle class. Surveys have shown that, while people consider $40,000 a year to be the low end of what it takes to buy a middle-class life, some people who make as much as $200,000 a year still consider themselves middle class."

The popular middle-class state-of-mind may explain why politicians pander to the mushy middle but that shouldn't be confused with populism or appealing to the true American majority. Close to half of all American households are bringing in less than $36K a year!

Of course, John, it's ridiculous to think the life-opportunities for a family earning $40,000 annually -- a quarter of which might go to pay daycare expenses -- is even in the same ballpark as 200K a year families. And that's what's got me scratching my head.

When presidential candidates talk about "the middle class," are they talking 200K or the 20 to 40K range? It would be interesting (and maybe disheartening) to hear the candidates get more specific about which "middle-class" they're referring.

I won't hold my breath, waiting for an answer. So I figured I'd write to you, John, because you have a better view. Maybe you can tell me: where's the working-class hero?

Sean Gonsalves is a syndicated columnist and assistant news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at sgonsalves@capecodonline.com

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