There is a common trope in discussions of class in America: everyone thinks they are middle class. Lots of polling data supports this assumption. When asked to self-report a class, about 80% of Americans say “middle class” (Here’s one news story on the topic from the Washington Independent). But, at the same time, other polls and surveys, including the General Social Survey, show only ~45% of Americans report themselves as middle class, while a similar percentage respond “working class.” What’s the deal?
The answer has a lot to do with how we think about survey questions and their connections to identity. The second finding comes from a slightly different question. Instead of being asked, “What class do you identify as?” or “Would you say you are lower, middle or upper class?” respondents to the GSS are asked, “If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?” Adding the “working class” category as an explicit response dramatically shifts the responses. This blog post at Truth Out has some nice, quick analysis of the GSS to show that (for example) the percentage responding working vs. middle class is quite stable over the past 40 years, and that having a college degree is a strong predictor of identifying as middle rather than working class (but not determinative). I ran some numbers of my own on the 2006 GSS data and found that income, party identification (Republican vs. Democrat), education, and race (but not gender) were all strongly associated with class self-identification (that is, higher income, more Republican, more years of education and being white all increased the odds of identifying as middle class).
What does all this mean? First, I think it means that we are too quick to jump from a survey response to a deeply-held identity. Some large fraction of Americans will respond that they are middle class, but also that they are working class, depending on what question they are asked. Neither is “false,” rather they are responses to different prompts. Surveys themselves are complicated social interactions, a bit like psych lab experiments, for a very unwieldy and hard to control laboratory: depending on how you poke people, they give different responses, all of which are real, but none of which are easy to generalize to other settings.
Second, I think it means that there might be a missed opportunity for a “working class politics.” If we know that almost half of all Americans will call themselves working class if given the opportunity, then it’s reasonable to guess that they will also respond to policies and rhetoric that explicitly invokes that label.