During the past few years, I’ve heard people often refer to Rockville as a “middle class” community and in the upcoming economic summit, you’ll hear it mentioned as the defining characteristic for the residents of our fair city. But what does that mean, really? Is it a measure of wealth, values, or behavior? I suspect it’s a bit of all three–and it’s a term that’s slippery enough that everyone can define it differently and still agree with each other. Much like the fictional Lake Wobegon, it seems that everyone is above average…and in the middle class. The alternatives–working class or wealthy–just don’t seem to be appropriate for us, do they?
Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center suggest that for most Americans, being in the middle class is defined as having a secure job, but not necessarily that you own a home or have a college education. It also turned out that about half the people surveyed identified themselves as middle class–but this varies tremendously depending on your age. Forty-eight percent of persons ages 30-64 believed they were middle class, while for those over 65 it was sixty-three percent. Seems the older you get, the more middle class you are (or believe you are).
If middle class were defined on the basis of household median income, it would be $50,054 nationally and $89,419 in Rockville. Compared to the rest of the country, on average Rockvillians are earning 79 percent more. If you look at the IRS’ statistics on individual tax returns for 2009 (the latest available), you’ll see that median income puts Rockville at the far edge of the middle. What’s this all mean? We may believe we’re in the middle, but we’re not. We’re significantly ahead of most Americans and this misperception can skew our perspective and attitude. Imagine we’re running a race and we believe we’re in the middle of the course, but we’re actually much nearer to the end. It could mean that we believe that those behind us are close at hand, when they actually are much further behind and have farther to go. Is that how we view people who are poorer than us? Do we incorrectly assume that families that are actually earn median incomes are poor? Do we believe they can easily achieve our middle class status, but in reality, the jump is much, much higher? Does our wealth suggest a greater responsibility and charity for the needs in our community?
Now I don’t just want us to put the working class in a proper perspective, but for those of us who truly are in the middle class, we’d better be aware of a longterm trend and what it might mean for our future. The bad news is that the $50,054 national median income is a new low for the last fifteen years when adjusted for inflation, and according to Pew, the middle tier “is the only one that also shrunk in size, a trend that has continued over the past four decades.” To revisit the analogy of a race, we’re falling behind and have been for a long, long time–we just aren’t aware of it. What will that mean for Rockville? Is it destined to fall behind as well? What kind of businesses and jobs should we be attracting, especially if we provide economic incentives? What are we doing to protect and maintain middle-class values? Will the city’s self-image slowly change into a working class version? Is that a good or bad change?
The economic summit on Saturday, November 3 is supposed to answer some of these questions, so if you’re interested, join your neighbors and elected city leaders at the Fitzgerald Theater at the Glenview Civic Center Park at 8:30 am.