Why I Do Feel Bad for the Middle Class

Sharon June 25th, 2008

In response to yesterday’s post about people getting shut off by their utility companies, Kiashu took me to task somewhat for sympathizing too much with middle class energy wasters.  He points out that those getting shut off have incomes that should allow them to pay the bills if they conserved at all.  The people really suffering are the poor – not the middle class.

 And, of course, Kiashu is right.  In fact, I’ve made that argument myself from time to time.  I’ve taken it further, and argued that the American working poor have it pretty good in comparison to the world’s poor.  So, on the one hand, I’m right there.

And yet, I’m still going to say that it is worth feeling some sympathy with people who have been getting along and now simply aren’t, even though the problem is their own damned fault in some cases.  Why?

The biggest signs of crisis are among the truly poor, but that this is rapidly moving up the ladder to the middle class.  And the argument that the middle class should have made better choices also applies to many poor people – we end up on a very slippery slope if we decide that one class of people is fully responsible and one isn’t.  The poor often could conserve and make better choices than they do too – I think we can either let the poor off the hook for their choices and the lower middle class, or we can let nobody off – the latter involves a kind of personal auditing that I think is kind of pointless.  There are, in every group, people who simply can’t do any better than they are, and people who are extraordinary fortunate, those who had everything and threw it away, those who never had the capacity for much.   The truth is that if you utilities are getting shut off, you probably are functionally poor, despite your income.  And if you are getting shut off regularly, you have no idea how to adapt.  And that is worth some sympathy.

The truth is that the majority of the people we’re talking about are probably working class, two income families with crappy educations.  They use a lot of energy because they are ignorant of the issues, because they are strapped for time, and because they probably spend a lot of their income on housing, heating and transport – and they didn’t know that gas prices were going to rise and keep rising, and now they can’t sell their truck or SUV for much of anything, they can’t borrow from their housing, and they don’t yet know how to adapt.  They have the house they do because that was the kind of housing that was available, and because it was within their means and conservation didn’t mean shit in the culture.  Many of them are also probably elderly – they have the fixed expenses of the homes they thought they would stay in, and the lifestyle they’d lived so long they thought it would last for the rest of their lives at least.  I saw some of these older people recently – I went yardsaling and saw old women, in houses they’ve lived in for decades, with “make offer” signs up everywhere.  It is harder to turn the heat down when you are older, and feel it more.  It is harder to lose face – to sell the house your children grew up in and to accept that the life you imagined isn’t real.   It is easy to say they should have gone against the pressures of their culture – and some of them might have been able to do so.  And some might not.

It is easy to feel superior to them – and certainly many people here have made better choices.  On the other hand, most of my readers have a real and genuine capacity critical thinking.  I used to teach critical thinking and logic to college students, and what you see even among those comparatively priveleged (because they are going to a good college) students is that a small percentage, maybe 20% intuitively understand critical thinking skills already – they’d have them whether they were taught or not.  Another 20% can’t learn complex reasoning no matter how hard you try – they either weren’t taught early enough or they don’t have the ability.

The remaining 60% have to be taught to think in complex and critical ways.  And if they aren’t taught in college or by a good high school teacher or by life – they don’t have the ability to do this.  I am not calling anyone stupid here – this isn’t about whether anyone is smart or not – lots of smart people don’t have this skill, and a lot of people who aren’t unusually bright do.  But just as learning to knit, or to dance or to play the piano or to read is easy and intuitive to some people, critical thinking comes naturally to some, some are deficient in the ability and most people need to be taught.  In our culture, critical thinking skills are rarely taught in high school or American public schools, which are heavy on the “ready people for industrial citizenship” curriculum.  This is not an attack on high school teachers – I’ve had some wonderful ones who really did struggle to integrate these skills into a culture that devalues them.  And it is perfectly possible to go through college without ever picking them up – perhaps even the norm.  But if they are consciously taught, it is often at the college level, and the US routinely prices its working class out of college entirely.

If you don’t have critical thinking skills, you can’t anticipate cultural trends, and you largely can’t dissent from the larger culture, simply because that dissent requires critical analysis of the world you live in.  What you can do is attach yourself to a dissenting minority group, that offers an alternate worldview, and that’s how most people who do see some problem with their society handle this – that is, I’m not saying everyone in the peak oil movement, say, is a critical thinker ;-) .  But PO and Climate Change awareness, until very recently, were very small, cutting edge groups in the US - not likely to attract large numbers of follwers.  And to follow along, you have to get to the point of understanding that the problems in your society are not superficial to come to the idea that you should abandon the cheap energy culture that you have been trained to belong to.  So at least half of all Americans were simply and completely unequipped to begin conserving ahead of a crisis.  Now they have to learn, and they have to do it quickly, with an infrastructure completely opposed to their goals – and they are learning – and some of them are going to fail to learn quickly enough to save themselves from disaster.  

Others who had the equipment are going to get caught up in the problems too – even with all the planning the world, my family is not perfectly equipped for a medical crisis that exceeds our insurance, for an extended job loss, or for a host of other disasters.  Some of the early canaries in the coal mines are simply people without the ability to adapt quickly – and some of them will be people who did plan ahead – and still can’t make a go of it. I think it is unwise to judge too quickly or too harshly, since many of us I think will be caught in the coming tidal wave.   

Do I care as much about the suffering of the American middle class as I do about the genuinely poor?  No, not quite, although I think the distinctions between them are rapidly disappearing – I suspect in a few years, there won’t so much be a middle class.  But I like to think that there’s enough compassion in the world for those who made stupid choices and simply weren’t equipped to know better.  The people I have least sympathy for are those who could have known better – and I think there are a lot of them too.  But for the folks who can only follow, they probably *had* to wait to change until a large enough number of us led them that way – and unfortunately, the movement didn’t preceed the necessity.  We tried, but we didn’t get it going hard enough, fast enough.


12 Responses to “Why I Do Feel Bad for the Middle Class”

  1. Verdeon 25 Jun 2008 at 10:22 am

    I think when looking at the place of modern American culture with an eye to its place in the history of world societies, one of the remarkable things about our culture is that there is/was a middle class. I’d go so far as to say that the presence of a middle class is one of the great cultural accomplishments of our time. It says something about the ideal of our culture. If you’re poor, you can’t realistically think one day you’ll be wealthy but you can sure make it to comfortable middle class. How many of us posting are in fact middle class – in world terms.

    Now, zooming the focus in toward our living in this time: I think the gift has been squandered. We’ve gotten so distracted by the glow of the TV, and by the ecstacy of consuming more and more products, that we’ve lost the lessons of those who labored to get here.

    We are entering a time where we will look like so many other world socities and so many other times – a society seperated along the lines of the “have lots, and have nots”. The Bush’s and the Cheney’s won’t be feeling any pinch and they’ll be the feudal lords in a system they helped to craft.

  2. Anion 25 Jun 2008 at 10:44 am

    I too tend to think that the notion of a “middle-class” is rapidly disapearing. I would guess that many of us, myself included, would think of ourselves as having middle-class values and education- but our incomes are certainly poverty level. I know this is the case for me, but I don’t tend to think of myself as lower-class or poverty-level, given my values, education and level of intelligence…..

    That said, it has been frustrating for me, as for others to have seen what is coming, and Cassandra-like, to have been warning about it and for the most part, not being heard. I have watched as many people I know have depleted their home’s equity by using it as an ATM, living way beyond their means, purchased SUV’s they really don’t need,and have been squandering both energy and cash. It’s hard because as mostly I feel badly for what I am seeing happen,there is in all honesty, this not-so-nice little part of me that is thinking, “ha, ha told you so; serves you right” and stuff like that. I know- not nice at all-I should be all sympathy and stuff- but while I have no problem with that for the poor and elderly- I do have a bit of trouble with it for those who have had much and squandered it all……

    I know what it feels like to be struggling to just pay the basic bills and put food on the table- as a young single mom it was really hard so much of the time- and I wasted nothing. Anything at all- a car repair- even a battery or a tire needed was enough to blow my whole budget. So I have no problem empathizing with the down-and-out- but I have to admit to struggling to be nice to the middle and upper classes who blew it all…..

  3. Sharonon 25 Jun 2008 at 10:58 am

    Ani, I do know what you mean – I vibrate between sympathy and none. I really do – but I tend to think that a lot of the truth is that we’re paying the price for our investment in an educational infrastructure designed to create workers, not thinkers.

    I admit, I don’t think Ed McMahon is my idea of an object of pity – and yet, I do think that we’re going to have to learn to sympathize with the real sufferings of those who could have done other.


  4. lydiaon 25 Jun 2008 at 11:09 am

    This is a very complex and difficult topic. Tell me, what set of criteria will be used to judge who gets sympathy for their choices? Who do we judge? The “deserving middle class” or the “undeserving middle class”? THAT IS A TERM THAT HAS ALWAYS BEEN USED FOR THE POOR-DESERVING OR UNDESERVING?
    Oh sure, you can argue all day long about how compared to the third world we are so much better off, even our poor. That is like saying that because a women’s husband doesn’t beat her, she should stay with him, even though he is a complete and utter asshole. Where is the line drawn. How about someone who saved, but then blew it after a divorce? Or someone who conserved, but had no control of outside circumstances? Or those who blew it all and then somehow won the lotto and then began to save? Every case is different. Guess what, we are all in this together, this effects all of us, poor and middle class of all stripes, abilities, incomes and educations. The history of the world is all about the kings and queen and haves always trying to stay on top and keep the whole rest of society in the peasant have not bracket. Middle class America is a blimp in the time line of history. A republic if you can keep it, which it now seems we won’t be able too, because of social engineering. The rich, and I use that loosely, maybe the powerful is a better term, will always seek to limit resources of all kinds to others so they can stay in power. Is this a surprise? Preparing is good to be sure, and if you have so called critical thinking skills and can see a trend coming, all the better- the old ant and grass hoper story-but many folks were not only not taught these things, they were lulled by propaganda, lies and other social engineering tools to do exactly what they did. Nothing. So now blame the victim. No, I am not for excusing everything. I am not for remaining ignorant. But if we are going to start judging others for lack of knowledge, who really is more deserving of the pointed finger? those who caused the crisis and took advantage of the “weak” or those who by their own fault or not were taken advantage of? Who is more at fault? Ken Lay or the ignorant Enron employees who trusted their company to do the right thing? They lost if all, shall we blame their for being stupid?

    If you are Casandra and frustrated for not being heard, that is more about your own ego of being right, than anything to do with the ones who would not listen. There is nothing more arrogant than “I told you so”. Those of us who “get it” and have been “getting it” for some time now, will not be spared a high electric bill any more than those who do not get it now. If there is a little money or resources, it may last a little longer, but the shit is going to hit the proverbial fan and all but the feudal lords are going to suffer. We need to take lessons from the French. Take them all down to the town square and cut their heads off.

  5. sgl42on 25 Jun 2008 at 12:54 pm

    In addition, housing is most people’s biggest expense, but it’s also a package deal, due to the way most school’s are run. If you want your kids to go to a decent school, you have to buy in a neighborhood in a good school district, and that’s usually more expensive than the poor school districts. And some neighborhoods are simply not safe. I generally avoid risking my life to save a few dollars. So even if you’d be happy with an 800 sq ft bugalow and a low cost of living, those choices may not be available in a safe neighborhood with a decent school for your kids. (I’m single, so this isn’t me, it’s just the typical family.)

    It’s very hard to untangle how much someone “wasted” and how much they tried their best under trying circumstances, at least on an aggregate basis. On an individual basis, it may be possible, and probably desirable if you’re trying to figure out how to allocate your own charity (money, time, garden produce, etc) most fairly.


  6. Heather Grayon 25 Jun 2008 at 1:17 pm

    I’m not for looking down on anyone just because he or she makes X amount of money. I know of exceptions at various income levels, so I think trying to put blame or labels on different “classes” is pointless.

    My parents both grew up poor — in part because of the Depression, and in part because, in my mother’s case, her father died when she was young and an uncle took over the finances (happens more easily than one might think, and especially in Chinese families in the 1920s and 30s). In my father’s case his parents were both dead by the time he was 16 or so — he joined the army as soon as he could not as a matter of duty (WWII) but also it was the easiest, surest way to support his younger sister. Both worked hard, got through college, my mother ending up with two Masters and my father a Master and a PhD. But all the education didn’t necessarily teach how to manage money to pay bills and plan for the future. My mom’s great at it still, but my dad never really quite got it (which is why she eventually took over the money management).

    I don’t know if that’s just the critical thinking skill that Sharon wrote about in this post, or also cultural/class issues as well. My mother probably is a natural at it, but she was also taught about finances from when she was a little girl. My dad was never taught about money, and the army really doesn’t teach you about that either — well, not back in the 40’s anyway.

    Having a good education and/or a good job doesn’t mean people get all the skills needed to go with having more money. And an economy that’s going downward shows much more quickly who does and doesn’t have the ability to adapt.

    My brothers and I are “middle class”, but all on the more conservative side of spending on stuff, I guess. I think the eldest is best at saving, but we all tend to be into donating to charities and stuff, so none of us has as much in savings as we probably should. It’s really irked me that I’ve had to cut back in recent years, but if we want to be helpful to our community in the future, we’re going to have invest in some hard goods, classes, etc., to be better prepared to do that. Fortunately we can do some things that only take time, not money, so that’s good. I expect we don’t look middle class to most of our friends though, living on the second floor of a farm house as renters, but that’s not really a concern for me.

    Then there are those folks who do know how to manage well and save, but it doesn’t matter because of illness or injury. We have fundraisers in our area every year for families dealing with paying for cancer treatments, major surgery (heck, even ‘minor’ surgery is incredibly expensive). I remember reading about an elderly couple in the 1980s who had 40+K saved, plus a modest income/soc. security, and had to spend it all when the husband fell and broke his hip.

    So yes, there are lots of people who should have saved more, driven smaller vehicles, etc. But there are other reasons for them to be failing now besides being selfish or thoughtless as well. I guess I’m just not into generalizing…

  7. Kellyon 25 Jun 2008 at 1:18 pm

    Barbara Ehrenreich has maintained that the poor and middle class are both on the same side of the class line — both of them work for people who own things (the original sense of bourgeois, IIRC). However, the middle class has been encouraged to believe themselves “better” than the so-called working class, and hasn’t — so far — seen that they have significant common interest with the workers, and not so much with the owners.

  8. Rosaon 25 Jun 2008 at 2:52 pm

    sg142 – I think that’s and example of why all of our solutions have to focus on justice (not punishment, but justice). We should have good schools in all our neighborhoods, so people don’t have to bankrupt themselves to get “good schools”. (Though I would also critique that argument by saying that many of the people I hear make it have not actually checked out the schools, they just check statistics or word-of-mouth, which often reflect racism more than any individual child’s experience in the school).

    I live in an “inner city” neighborhood and I was working in the libraries and schools as a volunteer, (and supporting them financially) long before I had a child. He will reap some of those benefits, but more importantly it’s important not to abandon entire communities and their infrastructure even if you are not part of the community that’s being abandoned.

    Specifically for environmentalists, the very best way to combat suburban sprawl and all the wastefulness involved in it, is to support and invest in our urban neighborhoods, and to protect and invest in the small local schools in rural towns instead of allowing them to be swallowed up into busing-nightmare consolidated schools.

  9. Anion 25 Jun 2008 at 6:38 pm

    um Lydia- don’t you think perhaps YOU’RE being a tad judgemental? I admit to my honest feelings- and recognize that they are sometimes not-so-nice- Mother Theresa I ain’t- I’m just human…..

    And re:Cassandra-it has nothing to do with my ego- if you actually knew me you’d understand that better- but everything to do with frustration over how more prepared we could all be for what is happening had others been willing to listen to all of us who have been trying to get the word out.

    And yes, I acknowledge how difficult it is to figure out who is “deserving” and who isn’t- and I guess maybe I can’t fall back on the definition of porn which I believe was actually something like “I know it when I see it”- I am willing to consider many to be “deserving” and worthy of sympathy- but there are so many who I have a hard time summoning up any such feelings for- and if that makes me a lousy human being- oh well- what can I say…….

  10. Shaneon 25 Jun 2008 at 7:42 pm

    I think humans tend to put a moral or narrative cast on history too often. I think geography, biology and energy flows underpin everything and we put a familiar face on things to make them relatable. The real question is where the bonanza of energy and resources unleashed by the fossil fuel age would have gone if not to the middle class?

    This brings me back to a thought I had a while ago in response to Sharon’s observation that we live in one of the most inequitable societies in history across the world. This made me wonder if inequality is also a mechanism for more efficient use of resources. You have to ask yourself- who uses more resources:

    A- One million people with a thousand dollars each to spend

    B- 999,999 people with one dollar to spend and one billionaire?

    So in isolation the consumption of the middle classes of the western world looks incredibly wasteful. But when you consider the alternative of equally spreading that opportunity to consume resources around the worlds billions of poor you have to wonder if it in fact was the best possible solution at the time? The equitable alternative may have seen even more devastating environmental destruction, and the duration of the fossil fuel age may have been drastically shortened.

    I think we still have a hard time getting our heads around what a monstrous bonanza the fossil fuel age was. That massive distortion of energy flowing through our societies had to go somewhere, and perhaps it was dissipated most effectively not through equality but through inequality, kind of like a flow of water cutting a deep and winding channel across a landscape.

    You only have to look at the terror people instinctively feel about the chinese or indians becoming middle class en masse, and the current capacity for this swell of consumption in those societies to fuel the spawning of hundreds of millionaires and many billionaires in those countries. Before you get too down on the way things are you have to carefully think through the ways things would really otherwise be.

    As for sympathising for the majority of people who are on track to suffer massively as the economy and energy system sputters and groans….for me I just take the view that they arent going to just suddenly and silently vanish away. Whatever happens we still have to live in the world they create, and we will have to deal with them day to day, so better learn how to work with them. They are a force of nature, like the weather.

    I still try and tell my friends about what is happening (undeniable now), and where it is going. Despite being right on the money so far they still blink, or give a micro-expression (isnt it weird watching cognitive dissonance in real life, right in front of you?) and manage to avoid going through to the conclusion, then quickly change the subject. And to turn things back on myself, you have to ask, maybe that is the best possible way forward for them? Maybe seeing what is coming isnt necessarily an advantage for everyone. I would hazard a guess that most people couldnt psychologically cope with that burden (hell…most of us here seem to struggle with it as it is).

    Shane in Australia

  11. Charleson 25 Jun 2008 at 7:45 pm

    This topic started me thinking of sympathy itself.

    Internally, if we acknowledge and dwell on sympathy, there comes that nagging feeling we have to do something to correct the problem. Combine that with fear of our own future and there you have a good recipe to repress sympathy.

    Maybe sympathy is easier to feel and more objective if we don’t feel we have to fix it. Kind of like tough love for kids. Let them take their lumps and learn from it.

    Practically, the sooner the general public sees people crashing hard the sooner they will begin to act responsibly.

    In any case, if I use my imagination to create a model of the present or future where I apply my analysis, to some extent I can be very abstract and cold. I have a feeling that when it comes down to a real live suffering person in my face, I think the sympathy will be there.

  12. kaaton 26 Jun 2008 at 9:39 am

    Sharon, your analysis of the importance of critical thinking is right on the money.

    Now if high (or middle) schools would only explain the concept of “debt”!

    I have a friend who wrote a brilliant Ph.D. thesis on the metaphysics of Aristotle, and who taught “critical thinking 101″ to the freshmen. Yet he took the “minimum payment due” amount on his credit card bill literally, and only had a good look at his bill several years (and interest rate hikes) later. And was surprised, and needed someone to explain it to him.

    Then also teach “analogy” and how a concept can be applied to many different but analogous situations, and maybe youngsters will get it that they are raking up debts against the future…

    It’s not so difficult. I’ve done it as a TA in logic 101 classes. Took me twenty minutes. And 50% of my freshmen sat astonished. There was always one who complained to the Professor about my rant ;)

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