The Late, Great Middle Class?

Four years before the 1904 World’s Fair brought international acclaim to the city, a bloody class struggle was fought on the streets of St. Louis.


Photo courtesy of the Missouri History Museum

Class war: Upper crust St. Louisans were deputized and served as a posse to combat striking streetcar workers.

On June 10, 1900, striking streetcar workers were gunned down by a sheriff’s posse comprised of upper-class St. Louisans who vowed to keep the city’s transit system running. Three workers were killed and 14 were wounded in the so-called “Washington Avenue Massacre” when the posse opened fire on a parade of unarmed strikers returning from a picnic in East St. Louis.

News accounts of the day reported that the transit employees did nothing to provoke the attack, although they had been disrupting service for weeks in their fight to win recognition of their newly formed union. Among their demands: a 10-hour workday instead of the 14- to 17-hour shifts they were forced to work.

The posse volunteers were prominent citizens — businessmen, judges, bankers and attorneys — who answered the call to arms after the governor refused to send the state militia to quell the ugliness.

Despite Sheriff John Pohlman’s insistence that the shootings were justified, St. Louisans were appalled by the bloodshed and demanded that the posse disband. The strike dragged on throughout the summer and eventually ended when the weary workers gave up the fight and returned to work.

More than 100 years later, the St. Louis streetcar strike serves as a harsh reminder of the deep class divide that existed in the city in 1900.

Class struggles — sometimes violent — continued throughout the early 20th century as newly unionized workers stood together to improve their lot in St. Louis and across the nation, says Rosemary Feurer, an associate professor of history at Northern Illinois University, who grew up in the St. Louis region and studies the local union movement.

Labor historians such as Feurer point out that the fruits of these battles eventually spilled over to nonunion jobs, elevating wages and working conditions for other workers — dramatically altering the structure of American society.

“Conflict created the middle class,” she said.

The nation’s aching backbone

The 21st century has found America’s middle class swimming against strong currents in the nation’s changing economy.

According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center, a majority of middle class respondents — 78 percent — said that they have found it more difficult to maintain their standard of living.

That was an unsettling finding in a nation where more than half of the adult population identifies itself as being middle class — a part of what Vice President Joe Biden describes as the “backbone of the country.”

Biden chairs the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, which was announced by President Barack Obama in January 2009. The goal of the initiative is to strengthen the living standards of middle- and working-class Americans. It was sort of an official acknowledgement of the economic stresses faced by the nation as it continues its transition away from manufacturing to a service- and consumer-based economy.

“A strong middle class equals a strong America,” Biden said. “We can’t have one without the other.”

Who is in the middle class?

The U.S. middle class is a vast economic grey area that begins just north of the poverty line but ends shy of great wealth.

Economists often set the income levels between $20,000 and $100,000, but researchers have found that the middle class is as much a state of mind as it is a bottom line.

According to a 2008 poll by the Pew Research Center:

* 53 percent of American adults define themselves as middle class.

* Four out of 10 Americans with incomes below $20,000 said they are middle class, as did a third of Americans with incomes above $150,000.

* About the same percentages of blacks (50 percent), Hispanics (54 percent) and whites (53 percent) say they are middle class.

* Americans of minorities who identify themselves as middle class have considerably less income and wealth than whites who say they are middle class.

The middle class was in financial trouble long before the housing market burst in the middle of the past decade — and before the nation’s financial institutions melted down and the Great Recession wiped out 8 million jobs, says Robert Cropf, an associate professor of public policy at St. Louis University. The squeeze began 20 or even 30 years earlier, when a host of financial factors caused middle-class incomes to stop growing.

Faced with stagnant incomes, middle-class families turned elsewhere to maintain their standard of living: Credit was quick and easy to get and consumer goods were cheaper now that they were being manufactured outside the United States and sold at big box stores.

Over the past 10 years, the middle class fell into debt “up to its eyeballs,” to use the description of a TV commercial of the day.

“People were able to maintain a satisfactory middle-class lifestyle on two wages and you had all the economic changes in the 1990s and 2000s that contributed to their ability to do that. You had sub-prime loans and you had home-equity loans and the influx of cheap goods coming from China,” Cropf said. “However, that changed with the Great Recession. People started losing their jobs and their homes.”

The recession destroyed the facade that had hidden serious structural defects long present in the American economy, Cropf said.

Life at the top 1 percent

These days, the Internet and talk shows are teeming with discussions about the growing class divide.

cropf100rbtsluMuch of this “class anxiety” is being driven by the realization that many Americans can no longer afford the kind of lifestyle they had just a few years ago, Cropf (right) said.

“We are living in a time where you have globalization and technological innovations that make previous periods in our history of innovation pale in comparison,” Cropf said. “And all of this is creating a different idea of what class is, and it is creating a greater disparity between the rich and the poor.”

saez100emmaneulAmericans who complain that the rich are getting richer, need only look to economist Emmanuel Saez (right) to prove their point.

Saez, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, studies income distribution in the United States. Among his findings:

  • The top 10 percent has seen its wealth grow dramatically since the late 1970s.
  • In 2006, the top 10 percent earned half of the nation’s income. (That share is larger than it was in 1928, the height of the “Roaring ’20s.” The stock market bubble burst a year later, spurring the Great Depression.)
  • Digging even deeper, Saez found that during the economic expansion of 2002-06, the top 1 percent captured nearly 75 percent of the nation’s total income growth. The rest of the nation — 99 percent of Americans — split the remaining 25 percent of the increase.

feurer100rosemaryFeurer (right) says the trend is disturbing on many levels, including this one: It indicates a quick loss of gradual gains that American workers struggled for in the century past.

“The pattern of the last 25 years is more wealth at the top and the decline of job security and income,” Feurer said. “Middle-class expectations — those expectations that I grew up with — have gone down the tubes.”

Saving the Cleavers

The American middle class that came of age during the post-World War II economic boom is as much about a state of mind as it is about income.

It is the comfortable lifestyle of TV’s Cleaver family, as set forth in the ’50s and ’60s on “Leave It to Beaver”: a nice car and a house in the suburbs, with all the trimmings.

Over time, the middle class became a catchall category for the growing number of Americans who weren’t rich or poor. Incomes within the middle class range widely, with working class wages at the lower end and professional earnings at the higher end, Cropf said.

But more important than the economic stratification is the overall sense of what a middle-class lifestyle is supposed to be: owning a home, sending children to college, going on vacation, living the American Dream.

Of course, Cropf adds, that middle-class home can be 1,000 square feet or 5,000 square feet in size; the college can be a private school or a community college; the vacation can be a luxury cruise or free accommodations with out-of-state family members.

“I think the middle class is kind of a convenient fiction that policy makers and politicians keep talking about because it perpetuates this idea of the United States being a classless society,” Cropf said. “Everyone’s a member of the middle class. It’s an idea that we grew up with.”

Feurer notes that good wages and benefits are no longer a given in the changing economy of 2011 — and some of those have been voluntarily surrendered by workers. For example, the hard-won eight-hour workday is sometimes exchanged for the freedoms of “flex time” — split shifts that are also good for the corporate bottom line.

“Unions fought against that, but there is no outrage about it,” Feurer says, noting the irony. “You’re not really free to have your own day, and by the time you get done, you’re working around this schedule — and not getting paid full time for it.”

A harder path out of poverty

Stefan Bradley, an assistant professor of history at Saint Louis University, understands the national hand-wringing over the health of the middle class, but he points out that the shift away from a production economy also closed doors of opportunity for poor and low-income Americans.

That same Pew Research poll that found a majority of middle-class Americans concerned about their standards of living also found that nearly nine out of 10 lower-class Americans were worried about maintaining their lifestyles.

Bradley100stefan“Production jobs are leaving urban areas and moving elsewhere — sometimes out of country — and this leaves a situation where people who are unskilled don’t have work to do,” Bradley (right) said. “The jobs they end up doing are those that will place you just above the poverty line. And that’s one of the worst places to be. You can’t access some of the benefits and resources available to those in poverty — and at the same time you don’t have access to what the middle class and more wealthy people have.”

Factory jobs were often a path out of poverty for people who had limited education, and they, in turn, were able to offer their children better homes and education — more of what Bradley refers to as “life chances.”

As America searches for its new economic order, the old “boot strap” adages about the promises of working hard must be reinforced with good public policy, Bradley believes.

“In America we always have an optimistic outlook about the way life should be; we always believe that our kids should do better than we did. And that’s a good belief to have. But that has to be an intentional thing,” he said. “We’re coming through hard times, and things may not be better for the United States. I hope for the best. You hope for the best. But you have to be intentional about making things better.”

By Mary Delach Leonard, Beacon staff

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