The elusive middle class seems to be all over the place

July 04, 1995|By ELISE T. CHISOLM

Are you middle class, upper class or lower class?

Stand up and be counted before the politicians divide us all, decide on tax cuts/tax breaks and clump us together as recalcitrant taxpayers.

Republicans and Democrats seem to differ on what to tax the middle class. Who the middle class is seems to depend on whether you're in it or not.

Well, I want to know where I am. Am I middle class or what? The class warfare makes me want to know. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there's a good chance I am. About 157 million Americans fall into that middle ground -- about one out of 5 of us.

Both Demos and GOPers pretend they are concerned about the LTC middle class. So I guess it would be better to be poor or rich, right? Instead of being fussed over.

We have the right to know.

The real trouble is that middle class varies with your interpretation. I know a millionaire in Texas who calls herself middle class -- she has two Mercedes and sections of ranch land. But then Texans have a different perspective on money than I do -- I know, I lived there. They wear their money on their backs or put it into their expensive cars or cattle, or they buy islands or more oil wells. In Baltimore, the very wealthy go out of their way to not show their money. They are apt to hide it in trust funds or savings.

So I took my own poll at Harborplace the other day, a place where all classes seem to meld and there's no war.

A 40-year-old working woman on her lunch break told me, "If you can pay your bills, you are middle class, and we do."

"What's upper class then?" I asked her.

"Upper class is buying radicchio and having a maid. We eat iceberg lettuce and clean our own house."

That's close, I thought.

A security guard answered, "I think I'm lower class. We live from paycheck to paycheck, and a night on the town is eating at McDonald's with the kids and missus, and a few beers later on my front steps."

A young woman in jogging shorts stopped gasping for breath long enough to say, "I'm lower class I guess, because where I work, we pop bubble gum because we can't smoke, and middle class people pop champagne corks. How's that?" (She had on Reeboks and two large diamond rings.)

Nope, I still don't have a handle on the phrase.

A man was playing an electric guitar on the waterfront, and he told me, "Middle class? No. I'm definitely lower class. Middle class is having a chauffeur, lower class is being a chauffeur. And me, I'm on welfare when I don't have a gig."

A senior citizen reading the newspaper on a bench said, "Well, I'm a retiree, and I remember my mother who had been an Englishwoman with a title, she used to tell me that upper class people said draperies or curtains, and lower class people call draperies 'drapes.' She told me never say 'drapes.' Mother was upper class, but I think I'm middle class because I pray that I will die before they cut Social Security. And we use mini-blinds on our windows."

A nicely dressed middle-aged tourist with her grandchildren said the only thing she knew is that middle class people whine a lot. "All my friends whine about not having enough money. They think they are poor, and they aren't. I whine, so I guess I'm one of them."

I came away from the Harbor more confused than ever. I know I have middle class values, just like Dan Quayle, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, and all those who talk about family values. But I still don't know what category I'm in according to Washington guidelines.

I called a library and the librarian said she didn't know the income dividing lines, but that a 1987 unadjusted measure places the boundaries of middle classdom anywhere from $28,500 to $55,000. Wow, how things have changed.

I called a financier, a big stockbroker, and he said, "Oh, I'd rather not say, I really don't know. Go get a copy of Fortune magazine."

Then I decided to call a trusted certified public accountant, and he told me the truth, maybe.

In Maryland, around $28,700 is middle income. If you make $61,050, you are in a higher income bracket.

Listen, this survey was like pulling teeth. I'm going to give up, but you had better find out what you are.

If you believe in America, motherhood, apple pie and have two cars, you are probably middle class. But how much apple pie you can afford, and what kind of car you have may place you in upper-class land.

Just remember, President Clinton and the Republicans can't agree on who's middle class either. They don't have a clue as to how to give us any tax cuts/tax breaks without the deficit going sky-high or the poor getting poorer.

Actually you might think of getting out of the fretful middle class bracket and make more money. But watch out for Robin Hood.

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