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The Psychology of Being Middle Class

Why do almost all Americans think they’re part of the middle class?

Poll after poll reveals that most Americans think they’re part of the middle class even if they’re clearly not. Economically, the middle class is just that—the middle third of American households in terms of net worth. A good number of those in both the upper third and the lower third will tell you they’re middle class, however, begging the question why. Why do so many Americans identify with the middle class? What is it about the idea of the middle class that makes most Americans want to belong to the group? Why is the middle class considered “more American” than the lower or upper classes? Trying to answer such questions is timely as Democrats and Republicans battle it out to be recognized as the genuine party of the middle class.

The rather odd psychology of claiming to be middle class despite evidence to the contrary has deep historic roots. Since the early 19th century, in fact, strong feelings have consistently been attached to the American middle class, explaining why there is still so much concern for its fate. Because the United States was founded on the principles of democracy and equality, it makes perfect sense that “average” Americans have been viewed as most symbolic of what makes this country great and different from others.The illusion that most Americans belong to the middle class reflects our national mythology of the “Everyman,” an idea that is central to both our collective and individual identities. As social beings, we are hardwired to want to belong to groups, and fear being labeled as outsiders or outcasts. Clinging to the belief that we are typical members of our tribe, even if we own five houses or are on food stamps, is critical to our psychic wellbeing. This is particularly true in a society like ours whose mythological bedrock is the ideal of equality.

Indeed, those citizens who have not been middle class have consistently been viewed with some suspicion, considered somehow less “American.” Both the poor and the rich contradict the constitutional precept that “all men are created equal”; that there are major class distinctions at all is often seen as a violation of our national creed.

Our distrust of those who violate our national creed of averageness is grounded in this country’s unique and complex conception of class in general. Class does not really exist in the United States, many of us believe, at least not in the way it exists in other, more hierarchical societies. And if class does exist here, our cultural norms dictate that almost all of us have to be middle class, making the notion of economic and social division discordant. “Americans might more readily classify themselves as bipeds or carnivores, or proclaim their sexual orientations, than define themselves as patricians, plutocrats or gentry,” Michael T. Kaufman wrote in the New York Times in 1989, helping to explain why so many us consider ourselves middle class. In a poll conducted that year in the Northeast by the newspaper and CBS, for example, 85 percent of people said they were “middle class,” 13 percent “poor,” 1 percent “rich,” and the remaining 1 percent “confused.” Another survey completed by the National Opinion Research Center around that time revealed that 40 percent of people with household incomes of $15,000 or less labeled themselves middle class while they were by all measures poor. These numbers haven’t changed much, confirming our aversion for being viewed as on either end of the economic or social bell curve.

The reality, of course, is that there has always been vast inequality in wealth and social status in the United States, but the endurance of the equality mythology illustrates its profound power. Any and all threats to the middle class, real or perceived, have therefore been seen as attacks on America itself, potentially dangerous acts that should not be tolerated. A look back over the past century reveals that the American middle class was almost continually “squeezed,” “declining,” or “disappearing,” usually portrayed as victims of governmental policies favoring the rich and/or the poor. The middle class has consistently been seen as bearing the brunt of the nation’s tax burden, with corporations and the rich able to avoid paying taxes through shelters and the poor lacking the financial resources to pay much or any of them.

This casting of the middle class in a kind of heroic (or victimized, if you prefer) role has served as more reason for Americans of all economic status to identify with the group. Popularly portrayed as being literally “stuck in the middle,” the group has been seen as being unable to afford the best things in life like the rich while too well off to qualify for government hand-outs like the poor. Recessions and unemployment have been viewed as hitting the middle class hardest, these folks seen as being the most vulnerable to economic downturns hard times. (The rich can afford hard times or can ride them out while the poor are already poor, the corollary to this argument goes.)

It is thus hardly surprising that aligning oneself with the interests of the middle class has been a go-to strategy for politicians looking for votes or ways to boost their popularity. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine anyone in public office or wanting to be to have a bad thing to say about this group of Americans. Despite its profound diversity, the middle class is seen as American as mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet, hard working, “real” people who keep the country’s wheels spinning. Is it any wonder that almost all of us want to belong to such a venerated group? The irony is that much of the actual middle class would, if they had the chance, abandon their “averageness” as quickly as possible to realize the nearly universal pursuit of wealth and privilege, while still claiming to be middle class.

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