I clasped my hands and bowed my head so that I looked as hangdog as I could. "These days," I said in a confessional whisper, "I don't consider myself a member of the middle class."
But my friend has seen such theatrical displays of humility before. "So just what do you think you are?" she demanded impatiently.
"The working class?" I suggested tentatively.
"Oh, please!" sneered my friend. "Be for real! You're about as middle class as they come!"
In my mind, middle class people own their home, have at least two cars in the garage and send their children to karate class on Wednesday nights. I had those things once, but since my divorce I belong to that group who -- as the poet once put it -- go without the meat and curse the bread.
But this seems to be a lonely group. I hardly ever run into working-class folk anymore. These days, everyone who isn't very, very rich or very, very poor claims to be a member of the great American middle class.
"I define it as a state of mind," said David Keating, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, in Washington, D.C. "In my view, anyone who works hard, tries to pay their own way and doesn't want to rely on a handout from the government is a member of the middle class."
I had called Mr. Keating and other experts yesterday in search of a workable definition of middle class. I expected the people I spoke with to use such terms as median income, socio-economic scales and professional status. And some did. Mostly though, I found that "middle class" has become an amorphous term that can mean anything anybody wants it to mean.
This may be why politicians have become so fond of the term. Suddenly, nearly everyone in Washington seems to be promising to cut taxes for the middle class, although neither the Republicans nor the Democrats seem able to agree on who or what the middle class is. Tonight, President Clinton is expected to offer his own tax cut proposal, using his own definition of middle class.
"Politicians use middle class to mean anyone who votes for them," said Katherine McFate, associate director of research for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "In terms of self-identification, middle class has almost literally come to mean anyone who isn't poor."
This includes persons we once would have regarded as affluent, if not rich, Ms. McFate said. "I'm amazed at how many people call themselves middle class. When you look at their income, they're clearly in the top 10 percent," she said. "This is especially true in the Washington area. Here it is not unusual to have two lawyers, each pulling in $250,000 a year, who will tell you they are middle class. But it is a values thing. They'll tell you it's because they have to think about money, they cannot get everything they want when they want it, and they have to work hard to make a living instead of living off dividends from stocks and bonds. In that sense, I suppose they're right."
Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow with the Heritage Foundation, said economists usually refer to the middle three-fifths of the income spectrum as middle class. But Mr. Mitchell complains that the term is "very vague" and may not be useful in determining tax cuts. In 1993, income for 60 percent of the population fell between $17,000 to $75,000 a year.
Iris Lav, of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said this question of definition is more important than one would think, given the careless way some politicians seem to use the term. Tax cuts have been proposed for families with incomes as high as $200,000.
Ms. Lav said, "The question is, is it possible to design a tax cut that is carefully targeted for the people who are really middle class and who really need it, yet fashioned in such a way that it is not a cruel sham -- that it doesn't put money into the middle class' pockets with one hand and take it out with the other."
"Is such a feat possible?" I asked.
Ms. Lav was silent for several seconds. "Let's just say the jury is still out on that," she said. But she said this very, very skeptically.