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What Is the Difference Between ‘Middle Class’ and ‘Working Class’?

A new ABC News poll shows that 45 percent of Americans consider themselves middle class, a significant difference from other polls that find when asked unprompted, 80 percent of Americans self-identify as middle class. The difference: ABC asked people to identify as middle, working or upper-middle class.

What’s the difference between “working class” and “low-income Americans”? It can be pretty significant. “Working class” often conjures up images of those who engage in physical labor for an hourly wage as opposed to office workers and service industry staffers; and yet, due to unionization and collective bargaining, the former often earn far more than the latter. For instance, a brickmason would probably proudly identify as “working class” instead of “middle class” if given the option, but the mean salary for a brickmason is $47,000 — certainly in the middle-income quintile (and pretty close to the median income). A worker assembling aircraft makes an average of $43,000 a year — also in the middle quintile.

By comparison, a teacher’s assistant — a more “middle-class” job, if the distinction between working and middle class is physical labor and physical setting — makes an average salary of $23,000. A laboratory technician makes an average of $37,000 a year. An optician makes a mean salary of $35,000 a year. A bookkeeping, accounting or auditing clerk will pull in an average of $33,800 a year. All of those jobs require some amount of postsecondary education, don’t involve physical labor and place the people in them in the “lower-middle-class” income quintile. Very few of them would, however, likely identify as “working class” when “middle class” was offered as an option.

The problem with “working class” is that it denotes a class of labor and a particular social grouping, rather than a class of income, while middle and upper middle class — though obviously imprecise in the vernacular — connote a comparative income. The use of “working class” as a category, while obviously designed to overcome the questionable utility of a system by which 80 percent of Americans self-identify as middle class, creates a whole new host of problems for surveys that attempt to determine how income affects people’s perceptions — so much so that, in the middle of its own analysis, ABC News switches to using income-based definitions of the middle/working-class divide to tease out how concerned people are about the economy.

Interestingly, after people self-identify as working class, ABC’s survey stops caring about their opinions. Even though the survey designers are obviously aware that the middle/working-class divide is not about income — since they stop using it halfway through the survey — they still disregard the opinions of those who identify as working class. No wonder those who identify as working class think there’s some conspiracy among the “elites.”

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