By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
‘Tis the season for such stories. A front-page piece in The Washington Post declares Christmas “a great divide” for the rich and the poor in our country.
At Tiffany’s, the story said, sales of the store’s most expensive items have grown by double digits. At Wal-Mart, “executives point to shoppers flooding the stores at midnight every two weeks to buy baby formula the minute their unemployment checks hit their accounts.” And Family Dollar is making more shelf room for groceries, its most reliable inventory.
I didn’t have to read it in the paper. It’s a divide apparent among my friends, acquaintances, even my family. Some are thriving; some are struggling. A few of us, fewer of us, fall in the middle.
I grew up in a middle-class world. We measured differences with a teaspoon, not a shovel. The Joneses might have had a revolving spotlight on their aluminum tree, something to envy, and the Smiths might have just bought a brand-new Ford. But nobody I knew – not even our maid, who arrived by bus every other week – was living on credit and hungry.
By the same token, nobody I knew got a mink coat or a Mercedes for Christmas. The number of presents under our middle-class trees in our middle-class houses might vary, but not by much. There were poor people and rich people out there, for certain, but we in the middle far outnumbered them.
Not so any more.
It’s hard to pinpoint when we, as a society, lost footing on the middle ground. Was it in the 1980s when the middle class decided to act rich – buying houses it could not afford, leasing cars out of its league, running up charge cards like there’s no tomorrow – that so many slipped into poverty?
Was it when corporate America exported our jobs, closing mills and factories and abandoning work forces and entire towns? Is that when the middle class disappeared?
Or was it a combination of unbridled capitalistic greed and personal irresponsibility that sucked away the large American middle class, leaving those in charge with more and the rest with less?
I leave that conundrum to economists who, as in every other field, seem irreconcilably biased toward one “side” or the other. There are always those ready to swear that the rich are deserving and the poor lazy and unworthy.
This country was built on the democratic notion that working hard could result in a comfortable existence. Now the U.S. illustrates that working hard, if work is to be had, might not mean a living wage, much less a small brick house with three bedrooms and a bath and a half. Statistically, you are more likely to win the lottery than to become a millionaire. Many would settle for less. After the grand self-delusion of recent years, middle-class turf is looking better and better.
We’ve proven that average U.S. citizens are more apt to vote against their own self-interest than voters in other industrialized countries. We rally against changes in an obscenely unfair health care system. We reject policies that would help the unemployed, the underpaid, the uninsured.
We tacitly reject living in the middle, sleeping on clean percale not satin, because we’ve been told there is no in-between. We buy it, along with our baby formula at midnight.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist who lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.