Since the inception of the American middle class in the mid 1800s, the group has been defined by their economic and social standing. Middle class is an identity group as much as an income comparison. Victorian middle class Americans drew attention to ways they were unlike the idle rich and wretched poor alike. Today’s middle class does the same.
The United States is England’s emancipated child, so there’s no surprise our ancestors were influenced by their ways. After the Revolutionary War citizens of the new United States sought to be different from their English relations. Coffee became our preferred hot caffeine beverage over British tea.
England has an aristocracy, lords and ladies with disproportionate power and lands granted by royalty. They were called the leisure class, and looked down on people who worked for a living. In the United States, there was no king to grant land and titles. There was however a puritan work ethic born of necessity and harsh conditions. To this day, our rich feel compelled to pretend their leisure is really work, hence meetings over golf.
The phrase “standard of living” arose with the middle class and referred to the number and quality of one’s possessions. Other signs of middle class membership included religiosity, cleanliness, employment of servants, and involvement in social reform movements. In the Victorian era that might look like an abolitionist with a cook, nanny, and maid to do the unpleasant and lower class work.
Today the signifiers of middle class fall into similar categories. Pan-ethnic spirituality, organic specialty foods, the use of “sharing economy” services, and engagement in health and wellness or environmental causes all tell us someone is most likely middle class, or wants to identify that way. This can help explain why poor Americans so often mistakenly tell pollsters they are middle class: they identify with the middle class’ aspirational goals.