September 4, 2006


What's (Not) the Matter With the Middle Class?: Why a Democratic message of misery is wrong for middle-income voters. (Stephen Rose, 09.04.06, American Prospect)

What's the matter with the middle class? Democrats like to pin their defeats on national security and culture issues alone, but the progressive economic message is also to blame. What progressives generally say about the economy is unrelentingly pessimistic -- stagnant wages, rising costs, overwhelming burdens of debt. It's a message that doesn't resonate with the middle class -- not only because it's overly negative (by itself political poison), but because it's simply flat out wrong.

Don't believe me? Believe the numbers:

* $63,300. That's the 2004 median household income of people in their prime working years, ages 25-59 (it's $70,000 for married households and nearly $80,000 for two-earner households).

* $248,700. That's the median net worth of pre-retirement Americans, ages 55-64.

* Zero. That's the median credit card debt for all American households.

Drowning in debt? Squeezed to the gills? Living paycheck to paycheck? I don't think so.

These numbers all add up to this one: $23,700, the household income at which a white voter was more likely to vote Republican than Democratic in the 2004 congressional races.

Once voters stop thinking only about themselves liberals are doomed, which is why the Great Depression was their happy days.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 4, 2006 8:28 PM

"Zero. That's the median credit card debt for all American households."

That result alone tells me that whoever collated that data and came up with those figures phukt up REALLY badly. Either that, or they took a very small sample size from a relatively wealthy sample group, because these figures in no way reflect reality imho, not even close. Median credit card debt zero - HAHAHA that's just ludicrous.

Posted by: no so stupid at September 4, 2006 8:41 PM

Household net worth (which includes all that debt) is pushing $55 trillion:

We're filthy stinkin' rich, which is why we don't mind borrowing some money.

Posted by: oj at September 4, 2006 8:48 PM

More like there's a small percentage of the population that are *so* ridiculously wealthy that they skew all the statistical results, making everyone else appear to have more wealth than they really have. There are far more people struggling from payday to payday than not, it's just that those who aren't struggling are often rolling in it. This class divide continues to get bigger and bigger, and as long as some prat throws stats likt these out, the govt (whichever side happens to be in power at the time) will hold those stats and wave them around like the holy grail and will use it to tell everyone that no, you aren't struggling, these numbers here prove it. And no, you may not have another bowl of soup.

Posted by: no so stupid at September 4, 2006 9:01 PM

We have no credit card debt.

Neither do my parents. Neither did my grandmother.

I know a couple of others who don't either.

Posted by: Sandy P at September 4, 2006 9:07 PM

No, there aren't. Even those "living paycheck to paycheck" are living in their own homes and have 401ks, which means they're saving at unheard of rates and taking on consumer debt is quite sensible.

Meanwhile, the "poor" have tvs, telephones and cars and consume so many calories they're obese instead of starving.

Posted by: oj at September 4, 2006 9:09 PM

IIRC, tho it might have changed, 1/3 don't carry any cc debt.

Posted by: Sandy P at September 4, 2006 9:09 PM

The wife and I are in what would be termed lower middle class in income. We have no credit card debt either. In a dinner discussion with friends I was surprised to find out that several other couples are, excepting mortgage, debt free as well. Anyone who brings home more than 50K and is living paycheck to paycheck chooses to do so. Debt freedom is the yuppie status symbol of the new century, forget the BMW.

When the green-eyed monster starts to stir I just remind myself that I am richer than 99.9% of anyone who has ever lived even though I've inherited nothing and I hardly work at all, then I thank God I was born in this time and place.

Posted by: Shelton at September 4, 2006 9:21 PM

Most of the middle class I know use debit cards rather than credit cards and with them there is usually no debt since the money comes right out of your bank account. Your only debt would be advances on your account and that would be very low.

Posted by: dick at September 4, 2006 9:21 PM

I'll bet Mr. not so stupid is probably about 24-30, knows a lot of friends who loaded up on credit cards in college, and may not contribute to their 401(k)s because their debt is just a wee bit pressing.

Of course, it could also be Paul Krugman.

Some people are squeezed, to be sure. Some people have medical expenses that are crushing. Some people just don't know how to handle the plastic. But since 1980 (or, to be reasonable, 1950), wealth is not just for a tiny slice. And the left hates that fact, as much as they revel in the lolly.

Posted by: ratbert at September 4, 2006 10:10 PM

Many of the people I know use a credit card as if it is a debit card. We do. We pay it off when the bill comes, plus we get a rebate of about 1%. Buy a $2000 refrigerator on Discover Card instead of writing a check and get a $20 rebate on your next bill. Better than a debit card!

Posted by: ray at September 4, 2006 11:05 PM

My wife and I have not carried credit card debt for 15 years, use them for convenience and pay off every month. We are a two-earner middle class family, fortunate to be educated and financially prudent. Would have paid off home mortgage twice, but wife decides every time we need a bigger house. My family and in-laws carry no cc debt either, and most of our friends are similarly situated. The figures cited seem entirely in line with my experience.

Posted by: sam at September 4, 2006 11:06 PM

"More like there's a small percentage of the population that are *so* ridiculously wealthy that they skew all the statistical results" No so stupid: you have mixed up average income and median income. E.g. 5 people: A's income $25, B's 55, C 20, D 38, E 160; average income for the 5 people is $59.6; the median income, however, is $38. (20, 25, 38, 55, 160 The one in the middle is the median.) The filthy rich E's enormous income will not affect the median income of the 5 people. Median income means half of the population earn more than the median, and half earn less.

Posted by: ic at September 5, 2006 4:04 AM

Using a median calculation to come up with 0 for credit card debt is a sloppy dodge.

If 50% of people, plus one, pay off their credit card bills in full each month, the median debt is zero.

That tells you absolutely nothing about the other 50% minus one, which could be a very substantial number.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 5, 2006 5:11 AM

Thanks Jeff, my point exactly - it does not give a true reflection at all. So maybe half the population don't have credit card debt - or should I say half the sample group, which may well be atypical of the average American. For those who are wondering, I am in my late 30's and live in Brooklyn, NY. Very few people I associate with (both in work and not) own their own apartment let alone home - NY has high taxes, high cost of living, high insurance rates, and some exceedingly high salaries for a minority, but the bulk of us here imho are constantly struggling to keep our heads above water. I'm wondering if many of the previous commenters live in NYC or are even aware that there are millions who don't have lives as comfortable as their own, as hard as it is for them to believe that...

Posted by: no so stupid at September 5, 2006 6:24 AM

"NY has high taxes"

There's your problem.

Posted by: AllenS at September 5, 2006 6:45 AM

Yes, 0 is not a true reflection because, in fact, people are on the plus side by a huge margin, not breaking even.

Posted by: oj at September 5, 2006 7:49 AM

nss -- here's clue #1. You don't have to live in NYC and in fact it would do you good to get out and see what a great big country this is. Here's clue #2, you're not entitled to things you can't afford, so pay off the toys you already own and then don't buy anymore until you can pay for them and that includes clothes. Clue #3, shop at Wal-Mart's for necessities, clue #4, start taking responsibility for your own life and stop blaming the "rich" because they worked their butts off for what they have and didn't make the same foolish mistakes that you did.

None of our family or friends have debt and only the very young have mortgages. We lived modestly, but not frugally and have never felt deprived in any way.

Posted by: erp at September 5, 2006 7:53 AM

Jeff and nss:

If you want to estimate the prevalence of credit card debt among the overall population, median debt is exactly the right indicator to use. You do not want the extremely high debts of a few to skew the picture. This is the same measure you use to estimate any income or wealth distributions.

This is exactly what the article highlights: Majority of Americans have zero credit card debt.

Obviously, a more comprehensive picture can be obtained by looking at the distribution of these statistics (income, wealth, debt etc.) among groups that comprise various percentiles (0-20 percentile of the population, 20-40 percentile, and so on).

Posted by: sam at September 5, 2006 7:57 AM


How much is in your 401k/IRA and what's your credit card debt?

Posted by: oj at September 5, 2006 8:26 AM


May I recommend moving to the Denver area? It's a fairly cheap metro area, with lots of pretty scenery and decent wages. Not to mention, an accessible mass transit system that hits most major work areas.

The status/cachet that comes with living in a name city like NYC is turning you into a bitter person.

Posted by: Brad S at September 5, 2006 8:53 AM


Less substantial than 50%+, no?

Posted by: oj at September 5, 2006 9:19 AM

It seems to me the Median Household credit card debt figure is only useful in disheartening credit card issuers and even then it doesn't tell them how disheartened they should be. Now I could be wrong, but seeing it stated as zero is a telltale sign that it would be zero whether the ratio is 50 debtors - 50 nondebtors, 20-80 or 0-100.

One of the useful purposes of the median is to appreciate the implication of the average. Take for example if average hcc debt is $1000 and the median is $0, what does it mean? Does it mean average debt, for those who have debt, is $2000? $3000? $4000? Without median having the ability to use the full range of the x-axis, it is a pretty useless function for general economic readings and must be looked at in connections with at least the other side of the y-axis such as median household checking + savings values. Would that be satisfactorily represented by taking non-M1 portion of M2 and dividing by # of households, or is there a better figure already defined that is the companion to this median household credit debt?

Posted by: Dusty at September 5, 2006 9:31 AM

NSS - you chose to live in the socialist paradise, don't complain. That's what you have when you have WWII rent control still in place.

Either suck it up, get a 2nd job or move to a different part of the country.

And on the side, read Dr. Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics, a Citizen's Guide to the Economy.

Particularly what comes on p. 44 "Incentives and Goals."

And if you really want to have an interesting conversation w/your peers/friends/co-workers, tell them what you learned here, you visit a blog where people don't have cc debt.

Posted by: Sandy P at September 5, 2006 10:47 AM

I live in the greater Chicagoland area, good place to live, Chicago is clean and has a wonderful mass transit system. Plus we also have world-class museums, symphony and opera.

However, we do go to bed earlier than you NYers, we have to go to work in the morning.

Besides, we get your weather 2 days before you do.

Posted by: Sandy P at September 5, 2006 10:54 AM

Less substantial than 50%+, no?

No. Far more substantial, by definition.

Think about it.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 5, 2006 11:28 AM

Excellent. I've got a deal for you. Let's each put twenty dollars in a pot and then split it with you getting the far more substantial portion. Get it?

Posted by: oj at September 5, 2006 11:30 AM


I live in Queens right near Forest Hills so I know about your high costs and taxes. You need to get a grip on yourself and realize that just because you live in NYC doesn't mean that you have to go out every night and go to all the latest in places with a cover charge of $50 and the latest fashions to get in the door. You do not have to wear all the designer labels to exist. YOu do not have to buy all your supplies at the local and expensive shops.

Decide if your city is going to run your life or you are going to run your life. Then maybe you will have something worth saying about credit card debt. Trying to have it all in 1 year is ludicrous and probably a big part of the problem. Exepcting that you can have all the goodies you had at home now that you have to pay for them is another part of the problem. Set some goals for yourself and make an effort to reach them.

Posted by: dick at September 5, 2006 12:36 PM

WOW So many assumptions - but you are proving my point of your own ignorance, so thanks for that much.

I do not smoke, I do not drink alcohol, and I definitely do not go out clubbing and spend money wastefully - quite the opposite actually. I am very careful of how I spend money, through necessity.

Addressing you individually:

re clue#1 : I have seen more of the States than most people - I only moved to (flew into) NYC the day before 911, which was not a good start - the job I thought I'd be doing no longer existed. I gave up a well paid job in another country to come here. Tough luck for me I guess.
re clue #2 : wtf is your problem? where did I ever state I'm entitled to anything I can't afford, and why did you assume I have toys to pay off before I buy any more, including clothes? I don't expect anything for free nor any handouts - I have worked for a living all my life and have always supported myself from a young age without any help from anyone, including parents - I wonder if you could say the same. Your arrogance and blatant prejudice against your perceived stereotype of a New Yorker is sickening.
Re clue #3: The last clothes I purchased were at Kohls and that was about 4 months ago. I am not into wearing labels, and do not have a huge wardrobe of clothes as you no doubt imagine I do. I shop at places like liquidators warehouse when necessity demands, otherwise I make do with what I have.
Re clue #4: "start taking responsibility for your own life and stop blaming the "rich" because they worked their butts off for what they have and didn't make the same foolish mistakes that you did."
You arrogant self-centred pig - I bet I've worked FAR harder then you've ever worked in your life you prat, the only mistake I made is not getting a college education - mainly because I could not afford it, and I don't have trust funds or rich parents to cover loans - I'm on my own and always have been financially.
I recently started college, first at a community college, and ended up with a 3.9 GPA and got a full scholarship into another CUNY college as a result - and I did that by working my ass off. Previous to that I worked for the NYPD for a while protecting the spoilt ungrateful butts of people such as yourself, and for a wage that put me below the poverty line for NYC - I even qualified for food stampts working full-time for the NYPD, but I chose not to use them as I have my pride. Really what is shameful is clueless people like you who live in your little cotton-wool world thinking that if you're ok then everyone else must be, unless they're no-good whiners who expect everything handed to them.. well guess what you moron - you're completely wrong, and if you could pull your head out of your butt for just one minute you might actually realize that the USA is not the great place for everybody that you seem to think it is - although your reaction is typical of white middle-class ignorance.

I finally cleared all my debt, but with NYC rentals on a NYPD salary, forget about it, there's no way I'd afford a home here.

Sandy P: "That's what you have when you have WWII rent control still in place."
More ignorance - I would love to have rent control, but if you had half a clue you'd know that stopped many many years ago, and there is only a small number that still have rent controlled apartments. As far as the rest of your comment goes, all I learned here is the sheer ignorance of people like yourself who are completely out of touch with reality. Your next comment - "However, we do go to bed earlier than you NYers, we have to go to work in the morning." wtf? go f yourself you self-centred ho.

Lastly to Dick, the fellow NYCer: I do not go out every night - in fact I go out maybe once a month to dinner and a movie or a show in Manhattan if I've saved enough, although generally I avoid Manhattan as much as possible. I have little respect for people who's lives revolve around designer labels and keeping up with the Joneses. Once again you're getting all these assumptions out of where? your own prejudiced ignorance presumably - I'm not expecting everything in one year at all (where did you get that from anyway?), I'm just trying to give some of the airheads on this thread a glimpse of the reality beyond their own safe little lives and maybe make them realize there's a lot of people struggling out there, and not through lack of effort or goals.

Many of you people disgust me at the way you so obsessively and blindly refuse to see any other view besides your own, and make all sorts of assumptions in order to justify your nasty little digs - wow, and people say New Yorkers are rude! WAKE UP.

Posted by: no so stupid at September 5, 2006 4:49 PM

Sorry, I stopped paying attention after "full scholarship" and "cleared my debt" made the opposite of the case you started out with and demonstrated that all our middle class white assumptions are quite accurate. The livin' is easy.

Posted by: oj at September 5, 2006 5:22 PM

And you just keep telling yourself that. If misfortune befalls you through no fault of your own and you find yourself penniless and homeless (although I hope it does not), remember your words today. I guess I can't expect people to understand when they can't see beyond their own little bubble. I wont be returning here - it would clearly be futile - your ignorance is beyond any amount of reason.

Posted by: no so stupid at September 5, 2006 5:27 PM

Misfortune has befallen all of us. Hard work gets you out of it in America. None of us us not poor because we're special--we're normal.

Posted by: oj at September 5, 2006 6:01 PM

"If misfortune befalls you through no fault of your own . . . "

How often does that really happen?

Posted by: AC at September 5, 2006 6:06 PM

So then what DO you do with your money?

Posted by: erp at September 5, 2006 7:00 PM

no so:

So sad. Can't be thankful for life in one of the world's greatest cities and can't seem to contemplate moving elsewhere. Nothing left to do but vent and march, eh?

I gave up a well paid job in another country to come here. Tough luck for me I guess.

That's about it.

Posted by: Peter B at September 5, 2006 9:04 PM

So to sum it up, you can't make it in NYC, you worked outside the country, and now you're going to college at age 39.

Again, if you're PD - move. You have the skills necessary.

As to the rent-controlled apartments - blame the media - that's the world they present and come to think of it, an elected NY dem a couple of years ago wanted rent control on the rich again.

BTW - my husband doesn't have a college education, either, and I only have an AAS in exec secretarial. Not exactly a high-life or well-respected profession, unlike yours.

But my husband owns his own biz. In short, no pension whatsoever from either of us, we have to save it all on our own.

Posted by: Sandy P at September 5, 2006 9:14 PM

AC - happened to my friend last year, age 48 and a stroke in Jamaica - too far from the hospital even if they had that drug that mitigates stroke damage.

Posted by: Sandy P at September 5, 2006 9:20 PM


So your pension plan is the same as mine--Freedom 85?

Posted by: Peter B at September 5, 2006 9:27 PM

Im 29 not 39, and I travelled around US b4 settling in NYC. I will get somewhere with education, but your missing the point that there are many people out there in a hard situation and its not all roses. Ive said enough here tho. if I seem bitter its becuase Ive seen the other side that most people seem to be blind to, and most of you are only kidding yourselves. Maybe the standard of living has improved generally, but the extremities are bigger.

Posted by: no so stupid at September 5, 2006 10:06 PM

It's not a hard situation if the willingness to work and save will improve your life as rapidly as it has yours. Hard situations are when there's no work to be had and no social mobility. You're just spoiled by opportunity.

Posted by: oj at September 5, 2006 10:11 PM


The 'slums' in NY cannot be worse than the 1970s, and urban life for the working poor is certainly better than it was from 1880 until the 1930s. The problem for the professional Left is that the truth about poverty doesn't help them politically, so they ditch it (especially when the GOP is in the White House).

People who are earning the minimum wage at age 40 are certainly poor. But such cases are not the norm, no matter what Barbara Ehrenreich wants us to believe. The decline of the industrial unions has hurt a slice of the population, to be sure, but that is not a political issue - it's an historical one. I don't blame Jimmy Carter because USW members aren't making $26 an hour with 8 weeks of vacation anymore (as they did in 1977, the last really good year for the mills in Pittsburgh).

As for the extremes - compared to what? Poverty is slightly better than 1970, better than 1960, 1950, and so on. But poverty in 1970 was much more restrictive than today.

The biggest issue for the poor today is probably medical care (and its cost), not income or opportunity. And, as others have said, location. Being tied to NY is a very limiting choice.

Posted by: ratbert at September 5, 2006 10:24 PM

You're 29, of course you have cc debt. Try an unsecured $3k loan at 14%, IIRC when I was 29 and newly married - hubby is younger. And my mortgage rate was still higher than today, in the 7s.

You previously wrote you were in your late 30s.

Lived in a cheap 1 bdroom for 4 years, paid it and the car off and then saved $40g in 2-1/2 years to put down on the house.

I made more than hubby for the 1st few years of our marriage, but he got a company car - the Horizon. That does make a difference.

Get out of NYC or come to terms w/your choice. Until you do it's going to eat you up.

You're better off becoming a plumber or electrician or even working in mfg. They need computer and math people to work the machines. And it's good money if you like working w/your hands. Good money and steady hours is important when you start a family. Never underestimate being home w/the kids at dinnertime.

Look, when my parents were kids, 1 car, maybe 1 tv. When I was growing up 3 main channels and vaguely remember B&W. You guys have too many choices to piss your money away on. Have your Starbucks, but brew it at home and bring in a thermos. I ate out almost every day, geez, did I piss it away. But my dad brought coffee to work every day and I brought pop.

As to being hard out there, how about living every day for 18 years where your biz could go kaplooey and end up back in the basement where it started? And not planning on receiving SS even though for the past 18 years we've paid in almost 13%? per year??? That's how we've structured our life. One of the inlaws has lost it all and the spouse had a life-threatening illness and they're still 10 years away from SS. How about paying $12G/y per employee for health insurance??? How about paying income taxes on money you might never see? We pay income tax on figures, not money that actually came in. If there's money in the business, it might be 2 -3 years later. If the biz goes kaplooey at this point, we're kissing tens of thousands we've paid taxes on goodbye - never had it in our personal account. Do you think the government's going to rebate? Do you think we're the only small biz like this? Do you have any idea how much tools cost that we might have to front the money and hope we get it back on the back end 6 months or more later?

You also have to realize some of us are older and have been working a lot longer than you, so of course we might not have a lot of cc debt. And my hubby and I never went for the biggest house we could afford, because we wanted to make payments on 1 income and wanted to make sure that if the biz ended up back in the basement, we could afford to stay.

Be thankful for what you have, when I was your age, The Wall fell. I've been to countries which don't exist anymore. Most of us here grew up during the Cold War. Came to terms about dying by nuke while a teenager, as my mother before me. That's something your generation is still grappling with. Another reason to get out of NYC.

Posted by: Sandy P at September 6, 2006 12:46 AM

No, Peter, ours is more S)%*$#()%!

No SS and mebbe I shouldn't have forced hubby to move to a bigger home......

Posted by: Sandy P at September 6, 2006 12:50 AM

If people can do what Frank Quattrone does, or Mike Bloomberg, or Dick Grasso, or Ray Kelly, or Donald Trump, or countless others, then they can "live" in NY. Quite well, too.

But that takes a lot of work as well. Like 90 hour a week work. For years.

Posted by: ratbert at September 6, 2006 7:54 AM


You read the new epilogue to Thomas Frank's book on Kansas? He complains because he met Bush voters in West Virginia who can't afford cable anymore. We Americans are so bleepin' wealthy that we have citizens like Thomas Frank who view cable as a basic necessity, the loss of which apparently implies that Hoover is running the country again.

Talked to my grandfather recently, who was doing outdoor work hauling gigantic blocks of ice around during the Depression. Meanwhile, I do essentially no physical labor and work in an air-conditioned office. For all I know, things may advance to the point where my grandchildren are working two or three hours a day. But, of course, there will still be people who say our lives are going to hell.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 6, 2006 3:08 PM

Frank won't rest until every house has a satellite dish....

Posted by: oj at September 6, 2006 4:41 PM


My new slogan for this fall: No government-provided ESPN College Football Gameplan, No Peace!!!

(Incidentally, I briefly helped out at a school on the Rez when I pondered an education major for one college semester. I'm sure most of the folks out there qualify as poor, but I saw satellite dishes everywhere.)

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 6, 2006 10:47 PM