The trap of the middle

The trap of the middle

The trap of the middle

Currently a serious, though little recognized problem, is the resentment of the middle classes, a resentment based on their very middle-ness. Take, for example, the book Poor Economics by economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, both of whom just won the Nobel Prize for their work. Imagining social mobility as the letter S, they demonstrated that it is easier to move from the very bottom (left-hand side) of social pecking order to the top than it is to move from the middle to the top. This was due to many factors, varying according to cultures. One thing was consistent across all cultures: the middle-class does not rise in any meaningful way.

While the two economists did not include first world countries in their study, their findings apply to these societies as well. Understanding that Bannerjee and Duflo defined the middle-class, not according to income, but according to social and professional values, let us look at the US in through this lens. An example of the Banerjee-Duflo findings regarding social movement in an American context is JD Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy. He started at the bottom and moved to the top very, very quickly, becoming a Silicon Valley financier. While he certainly faced obstacles, he didn't have any of the values that the middle class have that prevent them from working in the very best and highest-profile professions.

Bannerjee and Duflo described the ingredients of the non-mobility cocktail as “ignorance, ideology, and inertia.” On the spectrum, low-income people suffer primarily from the first two but middle-class people are prone to the last two. Their most striking example was from Bannerjee’s native India, where they found that the middle-class were undereducated and lacked opportunity in comparison to both the upper and lower classes. After careful research into the cause of this counterintuitive situation, they found that the reason lay in a very specific combination. The middle-class was unwilling to take any risks and constantly sought the “sure” thing; their obsession with security amounted to an ideology. Consequently, they pursued government jobs almost exclusively. At the time of the economists’ research, the early 2000s, local government positions only required a high school diploma and two years of university. Therefore, holding only the goal of a government job, middle-class young people tended to choose insignificant local institutions and then drop out as soon as they had the Associate's (two-year degree) needed to work for the government full time. At the time Bannerjee and Duflo had identified this behavior pattern, it had become the middle-class life template for over seventy years, and therefore amounted to inertia.

To return to the US and the applicability of the Bannerjee-Duflo findings, in the US one can see the that their conclusions hold true in the first world as well. Americans do have some official regulatory barriers, for example the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. In light of the economists’ findings, though, it is doubtful that regulation such as Glass-Steagall has played a significant role in social engineering. To summarize, the Act, among other aspects, barred people whose family members worked for the government or main street banking, at any level or capacity, from working in the finance, accounting, or corporate law sectors. The original regulations have relaxed somewhat in that there is now a five-year grace period. For example, if someone has a parent who works for a government entity, five years from the day the parent leaves his/her job, the child may apply for a position in one of the previously forbidden sectors. Companies may also seek exemptions from the federal government in the case of an individual of remarkable expertise. Consequently, it becomes apparent that only the very bottom, like JD Vance's family, and the very top are able to qualify, because these two segments of society are the ones who work neither for the government nor for small town main street banks. In middle America, these two employers are the most desirable because of their security and relatively undemanding entry qualifications. This reflects Bannerjee and Duflo’s findings.

Across all the societies Bannerjee and Duflo studied, those in the middle reported feeling as if there was a glass ceiling preventing their ascent while at the same time maintaining their poorer neighbors were a favored group since they seemed to rise faster relative to their origins. One reason the economists labelled middle-class identity as equivalent to an ideology was its inflexibility. The people studied steadfastly refused to recognize that there was any correlation between their low-quality education (in comparison to the upper-classes) and their unwillingness to take risks (in comparison to the lower-classes) and their lack of mobility. The substantive point implicit to their findings is that being in the middle is a choice because it is the result of a specific set of lifestyle priorities. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the values espoused by the example middle-classes, the ensuing inertia, often multigenerational, tends to foster a sentiment among these people that society isn’t working for them. Eventually, this leads to a resentment dynamic as the middle comes to believe that the rest of society denies them respect and that they are locked out of their “share” of the country’s (sometimes hypothetical) riches. The truth of the matter is, as the economists found, that a lack of willingness to grow or have a growth-oriented mentality is the real source of social immobility and diminishing stature.    

  

 

 

 

Mary Lucia Darst

Mary Lucia Darst
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