TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Joel Kotkin on America’s Disappearing Middle Class

The Daily Beast has posted an excerpt from Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict, forthcoming from Telos Press. Read the full excerpt here and pre-order your copy of The New Class Conflict in our online store.

From early in its history, the United States rested on the notion of a society based upon a large class of small proprietors and owners. “The small landholders,” Jefferson wrote to his fellow Virginian James Madison, “are the most precious part of a state.” To Jefferson and Madison, both the widespread dispersion of property and limits on its concentration—”the possession of different degrees and kinds of property”—were necessary to a functioning republic.

Jefferson, admitting that the “equal division of property” was “impractical,” also believed “the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind” that “legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property.” The notion of a dispersed base of ownership became the central principle around which the Republic was, at least ostensibly, built. As one delegate to the 1821 New York constitutional convention put it, property was “infinitely divided,” and even laborers “expect soon to be freeholders,” which was a bulwark for the democratic order.

This notion of American opportunity has ebbed and flowed, but generally gained ground well into the 1960s and 1970s. The very fact that the United States was more demographically dynamic, notes Thomas Piketty, naturally reduced the role of inherited wealth compared to Europe, especially France, where population growth was slower. Mass prosperity hit a high point in America in the first decades after the Second World War, the period when the country achieved its highest share of world GDP at some forty percent. By the mid-1950s the percentage of households earning middle incomes doubled to 60 percent compared with the boom years of the 1920s. By 1962 over 60 percent of Americans owned their own homes; the increase in homeownership between 1946 and 1956, notes historian Stephanie Coontz, was greater than that achieved in the preceding century and a half.

But today, after decades of expanding property ownership, the middle orders—what might be seen as the inheritors of Jefferson’s yeoman class—now appear in a secular retreat. Homeownership, which peaked in 2002 at nearly 70 percent, has dropped, according to the U.S. Census, to 65 percent in 2013, the lowest in almost two decades. Although some of this may be seen as a correction for the abuses of the housing bubble, rising costs, stagnant incomes, and a drop-off of younger first-time buyers suggest that ownership may continue to fall in the years ahead.

The weakness of the property-owning Yeomanry comes at a time when other classes, notably the Oligarchs and the Clerisy, have gained power and influence. Over twenty years ago, Christopher Lasch argued that a “new class” was arising that “begins and ends with the knowledge industry.” For this group, the rest of society, he suggested, exists only “as images and stereotypes.” Progressive theorists, such as Ruy Teixeira, have suggested that, in the evolving class structure, the traditional middle and working classes are of little importance compared to the rise of a mass “upper-middle class” consisting largely of professionals, tech workers, academics, and high-end government bureaucrats.

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