White Picket Fences
“My dreams are to have a house that has an attic… and a bedroom place and a kitchen with a living room… I would like for us to have a peaceful life… and plenty… of money… to survive… and we don’t get homeless ever again.”
The sociologist Herbert Gans once wrote a book called “The Levittowners,” where he described middle America a great deal in terms of where they live. Levittown is pretty much the classic stereotype of the American suburb; a single family in a house surrounded by flower-boxes, a lawn out front, porches, and white picket fences. To Gans, the American middle class stands in stark contrast compared to their working-class origins; Gans challenged the convention of an apathetic middle class stooped in anomie. Many of the beliefs and wisdoms of the American middle class not only come from family and friends, but also from media, work, and other social circles. Today, Gans’ model of Levittown is what comes to mind when we say “middle class.”
Not anymore, it isn’t: that was 1967, and here we are in 2009. Erik Eckholm of the New York Times ran a story about how families in Orange County, California have been seriously affected by the global economic crisis. Quite a number of middle-class Americans, once represented by houses surrounded by white picket fences, are now living in motel rooms. Foreclosures, debts, and hard times have caught up with the American middle class.
I’m not an American; if you view things from the outside, it seems that the life, times, and chronicles of the American noveau poor is nothing compared to homelessness here in the Philippines. It’s not that they don’t have a problem compared to street-dwellers here, but it makes me kind of think a bit about the middle class.
It’s a cliché, but if you see the world in black and white, you almost always certainly miss the shades of gray. “Social mobility” is a new catchphrase these days, but the movement almost always takes place not in the extremes of rich and poor, but the shades of gray in between. Here’s a diagram I made using a desaturated Photoshop color palette (I have little patience with graphic design these days, so pardon the sucktitude):
Structures, if I may bastardize Anthony Giddens and structuration theory (and recall what I can of a Plurk conversation), cannot be treated as completely disjoint and separate from agents; while there is value in hard work and self-reliance, many choices that make success, financial security, and everything in a hierarchy of needs (yes, Abraham Maslow) possible and achievable are defined by both structure and agency.
Class structures are made possible by the actions of agents; they are a collection of practices. At the same time, agents draw from structures all sorts of things; including choice, behavior, identity, and so on and so forth. Think of it as a sort of a sandbox: people build sand castles, but they still use the sand and the buckets in the sandbox to make them. At least, that’s a simple metaphor I can think of, owing to the fact that I don’t hold the monopoly of knowledge with regard to these things.
Anyhow, social and economic structures are almost always defined by extremes: the very rich and the very poor. In between those extremes, though, is where all social mobility exists. We all want to hear those feel-good Horatio Alger stories and want to see movement along the lines of the extremes, but as the February 2009 special report of The Economist (yes, that very magazine people refer to in order to sound smart) points out, “the middle class is growing.” Thanks to opportunities opening up to the poor in order to procure and secure material wealth, and thanks to the “lower rich” being closed out of opportunities, the “middle class” is expanding.
Being the gray area, the middle class is by and large defined by two things:
- Income and employment. The middle class cannot afford not to work lest they become poor, and are in the position to find work. The values of the middle class are almost always certainly defined, in some way or another, by work ethic; this is why we can speak of “corporate culture” and Sunday family lunches at a KFC. To be middle class, and to stay middle class, you have to have a source of income necessary to sustain your position in the class system, to keep your house, and to think of instant noodles in terms of emergency supplies, not as sustenance.
- Conspicuous consumption. The middle class is almost always certainly defined, in some way or another, by the ability to participate in mass consumption. In some ways you can call it an appreciation of high living, or caprice, for that matter. Think of shopping lists, wholesale shopping, organic food, driving a car while having the option to commute, Starbucks. The ability to cover for the essentials is one thing, but the ability to pay for those essentials as well as to spend for non-essentials for the purpose of leisure, defines the class gaps.
If you think of agents and structures in society in terms of a mechanical wristwatch, if you bang up the case enough (with, say, economic crisis), you change the way that watch works. Not that the whole world experienced a total demolition of existing social structures because of the global economic crisis, but a crisis with so many causes had so many effects. Whatever caused this crisis – capitalism, corporations, government policies, history – had changed structures slowly, but the effect to the agent was rather immediate: eviction, living in motel rooms, kids having a good idea of what homelessness is. And they’re not poor and lazy, because they’re not chronically homeless; it just so happens that your hard work, your mortgages, your savings… they weren’t completely wiped out yet, and it may not mean much to an outsider, but your house is the stake you have, as an American, in that wonderful thing called the American Dream.
The fact that we can speak of a “homeless middle class” means that the structures, as well as the agents, were changed enough by forces strong enough. As the article points out, these folks aren’t representative of families in trailer parks or tenement housing or whatever trope of “poor” there is. The motel-dwellers of the United States are representative of a good part of the American middle class, trying to hang on to a vestige of what makes them middle class in the first place: their homes.
Yet if there’s anything that defines the American middle class – at least from an outsider’s perspective – it’s exactly what these motel dwellers have lost: a one-family home, with white picket fences, lawns, flower boxes on windows. Things they work a lifetime for, but were lost to them in an instant, out of their control. While the problem may be tunes from the world’s smallest violin compared to the squalor of Manila, it might allow us a springboard to that explanation of why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Maybe the new middle class is not a consequence of increasing affluence, or a decrease of it. Maybe more shades of gray are needed to accommodate the idea of a “homeless middle class.” One thing’s for certain though, as it’s still all confusing on how to get around this crisis: a white picket fence in the motel room you’re renting won’t bring back the American Dream.