Within the last couple of weeks the Pew Research Center released a handy dandy social class calculator for Americans to use. I don’t like it and I’ve considered writing about it but haven’t until today. And, by the way, my feelings about it have nothing to do with the result I got about my immediate family from their calculations. 😂 I wasn’t actually surprised by the result… No, the reason I don’t like it is because it factors your class entirely on income and while I understand why they and other groups like The Brookings Institute calculate it that way I don’t think it’s fair or accurate. It’s actually even a little genuinely harmful to the accuracy of the national narrative in my opinion…
The premise is flawed and it just goes downhill from there.
(Yes, this blog will now have my random thoughts every once and a while)
Not even touching the importance of family, background, experience, etc. as possible areas that are neglected there’s this: There’s no accounting for debt. Income isn’t net worth. I’ve discussed this. It’s common sense. Also, what about trust funds etc.? That’s not truly your “income” in popular parlance. What about those who are retired? What’s “income” for them? It’s not clear. Right? What am I missing?
But I suppose they’re just trying to appeal to the “middle class.” Almost everyone who takes the test finds themselves in the middle income bracket, or as it was interpreted by news outlets and many readers, the “middle class” (Pew calculator ). And I suppose that’s nice and comforting for many people to read.
Of course, it’s good that the Pew calculator does allow for the effect children and location have on class but…I don’t think that’s specific enough. And while the calculator etc. is interesting it’s not any more truly accurate and meaningful than a personality test on Buzzfeed, in my humble opinion. Instead, it was designed for the middle class to feel good about being in the middle class. But again, that’s just my opinion.
But, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Americans get wobbly in regard to class. It’s been observed by foreign visitors for centuries now.
We shun “titles” and try to pretend we’re a truly free society and to some degree all that is true. But…humans developed those old structures around the world for a reason and it seems to be hard to create a structure that totally avoids certain human tendencies… And really, I think Americans do have more of a firmly entrenched hierarchy than we openly admit and have since we started…
Of course I do appreciate our egalitarian ideals in the US but it’s frustrating that we aren’t more honest about class in this country. Although, again, the freedom, irreverence, casual charm and privacy that lack of openness allows is a beautiful thing. It’s truly lovely. Again, I just think it diminishes the quality of certain discussions in regard to many national issues. And it can actually create more inequality, ironically, in my opinion because I think it has a tendency to project an overly optimistic impression of where we are as a country. But I won’t go into all of that except for the following two examples:
A man inherits a lot of money from his parent’s investments. His father, a shrewd businessman, saw potential in certain sectors and made some wise purchases decades and decades ago. This man benefits when his father dies and receives checks for $90,000.00 every month from those old investments for a while and then likely $10,000.00 to $80,000.00 or so every other month or every month for over a decade. It just depends and varies, but it adds up. So, he invests it while still also receiving more money from his father’s investments as usual, and is careful with what he has as he was taught to be by his family. However, his actual job is fairly humble and he only has an “income” of $40,000 to $50,000 from that job a year. Of course, he has little debt (but lots of savings, investments, etc). How do you allow for that sort of chaos in regard to income according to the Pew Research Center calculator? Also, what if this individual has properties in multiple locations? Which location counts? The rural ones, like a lake house or summer cottage, where things are cheaper, or the non rural location(s)? It doesn’t make sense. At least, that’s the way it seems to me. According to the calculator he’s middle class? Or is he?
Or what about the following: A young woman grew up in a very bad neighborhood and had a lot of challenges but she overcame them, graduated top of her high school class and then went to the local university and then to medical school to become a doctor. Now, in order to get through her education she took out loans. Lots and lots of loans. And by the time she finished her residency she was wildly in debt. And not just from student loans but from credit cards. Now, even as she’s working she’s still leasing her old car. Thankfully, she may make over $100,000 a year starting out. She’s single, and lives in a less expensive community and so according to the Pew Research Calculator she’s likely “upper class.” And it’s true, she does do well but a lot goes out every month to creditors. Let’s say she owes over $150,000.00 in student loans and another $25,000.00 on credit cards and from her car loan. In truth, she’s actually just a few steps away from bankruptcy and there’s no one in her family or who she’s that close to who would help her if she had serious financial problems. They just couldn’t despite how much the might want to. So, she’d be in huge trouble if something went very wrong. And according to that calculator she could slip from upper class to poor in a matter of months for getting into a bad car accident or etc. Unless her employer is understanding… But what if she loses her job temporarily? Then what? There goes her social class?!?? That’s ludicrous… 🤦🏼♀️ There’s no accounting for her experience, education, etc. in the upswing and no accounting for her challenging family background and overall upbringing in creating a barrier to her financial (and class) security in the calculator (as far as I can see). It’s incomplete at best.
Of course, as it often goes, thankfully, our young doctor will probably be much more solid financially in a few years but…these ways we have of figuring class (like the Pew calculator) don’t seem fair. They might be comforting in some way, but they don’t accurately assess the realities we all live with. And the examples I gave were just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are better examples of the inaccuracy and etc.