One of the few advantages of spending the first week of 2007 sick as a dog was getting the opportunity to watch the Oprah show. This past week they aired a show (originally aired last year) called “What Class Are You? Inside America’s Taboo Topic” which took a look at the realities and perceptions around the issue of class in America. What I found most interesting were the deep seated assumptions and biases people have toward determining who is or is not lower class or upper class. To hear the people on the street speak reminded me of the whole gaydar topic. That somehow we just “know” who someone else is by some preconceived notion based on how they look, speak, where the live, who they associate with, how the dress, etc. And of course because we think we “know”, we instantly paint a picture and jump on our own righteous position regarding “that” type of person.

Truly a great distinction was made between the difference of net worth versus human worth. Your value as a person has nothing to do with your net worth and as people hung up on keeping up with the Joneses and measuring “success” and “wealth” we often forget that. Or, perhaps we can’t get past that because we don’t feel our own personal sense of worth because we’re too busy doing things, comparing ourselves to others, and chasing after happiness “out there” where it can never be found anyway.

In my feverish haze on the couch it got me to thinking, what really constitutes the lower, middle, and upper class anyway? And, what the hell is lower-middle, middle-middle, and upper-middle anyway? Rich did a great little article recently called “Are You on Track? How Do You Stack Up?” which can give you perspective of where you personally fit in the proverbially bigger pie. Yet, I still wonder which class is what?

So, I went on a hunt on the web and of course immediately ended up at Wikipedia and a lengthy entry about the American Middle Class . There are lots of words on the page and if you’re a numbers or economics freak, I invite you to read it all bit by bit. I gravitated to the section on the 2005 sociology textbook, “Society in Focus” by William Thompson and Joseph Hickey who present a five tier model of socioeconomic class. That model, reproduced from Wikipedia and footnoted on their site in more detail is as follows:

    Upper class, (ca. 1%-5%) individuals with considerable power over the nation’s economic and political institutions. This groups owns an uproportional share of the nation’s resources. The top 1% had incomes exceeding $250,000 with the top 5% having household incomes exceeding $140,000. This group features strong group solidarity and is largely consitituted by the heirs to multi-generational fortunes. Prominent government officials, CEOs and successful entrepreneurs are among the upper class even if not of elite background.

    Upper middle class, (ca. 15%) white collar professionals with advanced post-secondary education such as physicians, professors, lawyers, corporate executives, and other management. While households commonly have six figure incomes in this group, some one income earner households and lesser paid professionals may not. While, high educational attainment commonly serves as staple mark of this group, entrepreneurs and business owners may also be upper middle class even if lacking advanced educational attainment.

    Lower middle class, (ca. 33%) individuals who worked their way through college and commonly have a Bachelor’s degree or some college education. School teachers, sales-employees and lower to mid level supervisors rank among those in this particular group. Household income is generall in the range of $30,000 to $75,000. Workers in this group are mostly white collar but have less autonomy in their work than do upper middle class professionals. Members of this class often attempt to emulate those in the two higher classes and have recently become overly indebted by their desire to have a comfortable lifestyle.

    Working class, (ca. 30%) individuals who occupy both blue and white collar occupations. Pink collar workers in predominantely female clerical positions are common in this class. Job security tends to be low for this group and unemployment as well as losing health insurance remain potent economic threats. Household incomes typically range from $16,000 to $30,000.[2]

    Lower class, repeated cycles of unemployment, working multiple low-level part-time jobs are common among this group. Many families fall below the poverty line from time to time when employment opportunities are scarce.

If I read between the lines and do the math, it appears that something between approximately $30,000 and $140,000 would constitute the range of the middle class. Quite a range. And, of course we know from the things we read that the middle class keeps shrinking while the bottom and top extremes get further apart. The super rich are getting massively rich and the working poor are struggling to simply stay alive. As I look at this range, I think a household earning $30,000 a year compared to one earning $140,000 a year has wildly different goals, lifestyles, and concerns. For instance, I would fathom a guess that the top end of the scale might be shopping for a set of mid-range Riedel wine glasses for the next night of entertaining while the bottom end of this scale is thrilled to treat themselves to some wine in a glass, period.

Another way to look at class is given to us by the New York Times’ Class Matters Series and the resulting book from these correspondents called “Class Matters”. What is very clear from the reader profiles and forums is that the American dream consists of earning a comfortable living, spending quality time with people/things you love, and moving up in income class. Problem is that while people are working longer and harder these ideals are even more elusive than ever. For many who are earning a good living the balance and “free time” factor seem unattainable. Moving up in this giant chasms of class is like rowing a boat upstream on a flood stage river. While moving up in class may be a stated goal, the reality is that so many people are one paycheck, layoff, illness, injury, or weather disaster away from financial ruin. Emergency funds while common sense are not common practice. And, at the lower end of the class scales just plain unattainable.

What class did you consider yourself in before reading this article? Has that shifted based on the five tier model above? What preconceived notions do you have about the upper class? the lower class? the working class? Do you make snap and sweeping judgments when you see someone driving by in a BMW? How about in a beat up old Pinto? Most importantly do you feel wealthy on the inside or are you chasing an elusive ideal that may or may not be achievable? If you knew you could never move up a class, how would you have a great life and be happy anyway?

Would love to hear your thoughts below…