Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Alleviating Middle-Class Guilt and Shame

Most middle-and-upper-income people work hard to keep what they earn.

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Middle-class people (and especially the wealthy) are subject to much invoking of guilt and shaming. For example, “You’re PRIVILEGED!" The implication is that making a good living doesn’t come mainly from ability and hard work but from race, class, and gender.

Indeed, most novels, plays, movies, and the mainstream media, portray the poor as innocent victims of middle-class and especially rich people's ill-treatment. Well-off people are disproportionately portrayed as having acquired their money unfairly, typically a sleazy businessman—yes, it’s usually a man. In children’s movies, screenwriters have the luxury of drawing on monarchies, so, many of the bad guys are wealthy royalty (for example, in Shrek, Frozen, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast) who didn't earn their money; they inherited it via primogeniture.

Of course, some people had money because they inherited it or derived benefit from their race, class, or gender. But most middle-and upper-income people (of all races and genders) did work harder and smarter for longer, delaying gratification, for example, forgoing income and taking on debt to get more education so that an employer would pay them well. Or, if the person runs a business, s/he risked being one of the half of businesses that fail, and instead, worked hard enough and wisely enough that lots of customers—rich and poor—were willing to part with their hard-earned dollars to buy the product or service that s/he made available to them.

Middle and upper earners are also guilt-tripped into not voting in their or their family's self-interest but rather to vote for candidates who will raise their taxes, for example, to give more of their money to the poor:

  • More education resources redistributed from schools serving their children to schools serving the poor. These aren't just cash resources but, for example, eliminating classes grouped by student achievement.
  • "Free college for all," which would reduce their children's chance of admission to selective colleges. And if admitted, at most colleges, the middle-class qualifies for little cash aid. Mainly, they must take out loans, often endangering the family's financial security. And student loans must not only be paid back with interest, it's virtually the only loan you cannot discharge in bankruptcy—you must continue to pay, no matter what.
  • The focus-group-tested phrase “Medicare for All." That means health care for everyone, whether they've paid into the system or not, legal or not. That means that taxpayers will get worse access to the already overburdened, error-ridden health care system. That, in turn, increases the middle-income person's risk of poor treatment and excess morbidity and mortality; that is, prolonged recoveries and unnecessarily dying.

Meanwhile, the guilt-and-shame mongers don’t mention that the top 1% of earners already pay 39% of the federal income tax, the top 10% pay 71% of the tax, and the bottom 50% less than 3%.

Atop all that, middle- and upper earners are frequently bombarded with solicitations to donate yet more of their money and time to nonprofits, which mainly focus on the poor. And the pitches work. Those maligned one-percenters gave more than a third of the over $400 billion that Americans gave to charity last year.

The takeaway

Again, of course, some middle- and upper-income people, like some of the poor, acquire their money through subterfuge or inheritance. But most middle- and upper-income earners, though imperfect as we all are, have earned the right to walk this earth and to put their head on the pillow each night without guilt or shame—even if they don’t vote to have yet more money, education, or healthcare wrested from themselves and their children.

I read this aloud on YouTube.