COMMENTS: Muddled Sawyer Needs a Class on Middle Class

Last Tuesday, Tyndall Report acknowledged CBS' forward-looking innovation with its Where America Stands. The feature series explains long-term problems that face the nation and tries to outline possible solutions. The series had already tackled three health issues--Seth Doane on obesity, in-house physician Jon LaPook on dementia, anchor Katie Couric on the War on Cancer. Now Dr LaPook returns with an update on the biotech prospects of human embryonic stem cell research. Researchers can grow diseased tissues in the laboratory to test medicines on them; they can implant cells in the body to try to regenerate tissue; and they can identify harmful stem cells already in the body to suppress tumors.

As informative as CBS' explainer series tries to be, that is how confounding ABC's new effort this week, Saving America's Middle Class, has been. It is a befuddlement. Who are the middle class? Anchor Diane Sawyer offered four contradictory descriptions Monday:

"People whose drive and optimism has lifted the nation out of financial trouble into triumph time and time again, first during the Industrial Revolution, again after World War II."

"The 135 million working people who did so much to create this American century."

"The envy of the rest of the world, 50% of this nation, the engine of American's financial might."

"To be middle class always had less to do with income than a defining value, a belief that with hard work and a better education, in America, your children would have a better life and more opportunity."

What? Surely the dominant class during the Industrial Revolution was the working class? So how big is the working class--135m or 50% of the nation? Which century is the American Century anyway, C20th or "this" one, the C21st? And Sawyer cannot be serious that the middle class is a belief system rather than an economic and sociological category. What does she think the word class refers to?

Sawyer suggested that we go to the series' Website to check out its definition of the middle class. It offers ten litmus tests, although it does not say how many of the ten one must satisfy to be included. At the minimum, though, the site suggests that one should belong to a two-car family, with collegebound children (childless people and empty nesters are ignored), earning at least $50K annually (but less than $125K), most likely homebuyers not renters, and having no trouble paying the bills. That is not rigorous enough to be a definition but seemed fair enough for a rough description--until we came to part two of the series from Sharyn Alfonsi.

As far as Alfonsi was concerned an anonymous suburban California couple called "Joe & Kate" still live in a middle class family. No matter that they are four months away from being homeless; no matter that they rely on a food bank to feed their children; no matter that their sole income is an $11-an-hour job. If Joe & Kate are members of the "middle class" then that term is devoid of meaning. Surely, they are members of the working poor.

Just as the current recession was starting a couple of years ago, NBC's Lisa Myers ran into the same problem when she profiled the Second Harvest food bank. I commented back then that Myers "used the confusing terminology that thousands of the hungry belong to the 'middle class.' It would seem that, by definition, membership in the middle class requires enough income to feed oneself. The word for those without enough to eat is poor."

You would think that a sociologist or an economist could help Sawyer cut through this gobbledegook with some scholarly precision. Sure enough she consulted Professor Elizabeth Warren of Harvard University, who "has been writing about the middle class for 20 years." So, Professor Warren, clarify things for us. "The middle class is what makes us America. The fact that we were not born into it; we earned it; we developed it; and we do not all look alike in it--that is what makes it great. Middle class people are people who mow the lawn, who pick up litter on the streets, who go to the PTA meetings. It is about aspirations and what hopes we have for our children. That is middle class."

Oh dear.


You must be logged in to this website to leave a comment. Please click here to log in so you can participate in the discussion.