Myth of the middle class: Most Americans don't even have $1,000 in savings

0.1% of Americans have as much wealth as the bottom 90%. It's time to stop saying "middle class"; it does not exist

Published January 14, 2016 6:36PM (EST)

  (<a href=''>Champion studio</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Champion studio via Shutterstock)

American politicians constantly speak of the middle class. Democrats, Republicans and even many independents all insist their policies defend it.

But what does it really mean? This question is rarely asked. What exactly is the middle class?

A new study suggests that the U.S. hardly even has one.

More than half of Americans — 56 percent, to be exact — have less than $1,000 combined in their checking and savings accounts, according to a recent survey, Forbes reported.

This is to say, most Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Furthermore, almost two-thirds of Americans — 63 percent — do not have enough in their savings for an emergency. A substantial majority of Americans would need to borrow money if faced with an unexpected expense.

U.S. politicians frequently rant about supposed "American exceptionalism," but, compared to other industrialized nations, the U.S. has grossly disproportionate poverty rates.

Roughly 15 percent of Americans live in poverty — 46.7 million people, in 2014. Close to one in every four American children suffers from poverty. And, among black and Latina/o Americans, the economic hardship is even worse.

This poverty has tangible, evident implications. It means that the U.S. has the sixth-highest hunger rate out of all of the economically developed OECD nations.

In other words, more people go hungry in the U.S. than do in Poland and the Slovak Republic. Slightly fewer people go hungry in the U.S. than in Estonia. And hunger is much less widespread in the poverty-stricken nations of India and Brazil.

Politicians constantly insist that the U.S. is the putative "leader of the world," but why does this matter if it does not translate into positive gains for actual working-class citizens? The U.S. may be the most powerful country in the world, economically and militarily speaking, but if this does not bring with it a high standard of living or ensure well-being for citizens, it ultimately does not matter; it simply benefits the rich, and the rich alone.

And the rich is exactly who benefits.

The richest 0.1 percent of Americans have almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. 160,000 families have as much money as around 290 million Americans.

Globally, the figure is even more stark. The richest 1 percent is estimated to have more wealth than 99 percent of the people on the planet.

Put a bit differently, 7.23 billion human beings have less wealth than 70 million.

Increasingly, "middle class" is an ideological term, not an objective one. As the moribund middle of the economy shrinks, poverty becomes more and more mainstream. Terms like "middle class" simply serve to normalize the myth of the American Dream  which, as the dissentious comedian George Carlin infamously put it, you have to be asleep to believe.

Meanwhile, income inequality is constantly on the rise. It is at the highest it has been since 1928 — the eve of the Great Depression.

President Obama admitted in his final State of the Union address that Wall Street was responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, but Wall Street is precisely the one who benefited from it. None of the banking executives who crashed the economy and robbed millions of American were punished. And, in the eight years since then, income inequality has only continued to grow.

If most Americans do not have any savings, and this number is rising, the term "middle class" is useless. Politicians and news outlets may try to redefine it, but, if a majority of a country's citizens live paycheck-to-paycheck, that country has been hollowed out — replaced with an inverted bell curve whose peaks are getting farther and farther apart and whose trough is so overstretched it will eventually burst.

It is time to admit it: There is no middle class; there is only the working class and the ruling class — the economic elite.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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Economic Disparity Middle Class President Obama