As students, teachers, nurses, firefighters, cops and snowplow drivers in Wisconsin continue to battle for their basic right to collective bargaining, one thing is growing clear: We are all working class now.
The term "working class" has long been used as a catchall for laborers who do some sort of physical work for their paychecks. Culturally, the term implied certain social trends as well: high school diplomas rather than advanced degrees, Wal-Mart rather than Whole Foods, Dodge pickups rather than Honda Accords.
But such thinking is outdated. As the American industrial sector deteriorates, as more Americans are saddled with worthless homes and mounting debts, as the cost of healthcare and education — which the government refuses to adequately subsidize — continues to skyrocket beyond the average family's means, many more Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, a few months (or weeks) away from foreclosure and insolvency.
The IRS reports that middle-class wages have been stagnant, hovering around an average of $33,000 (adjusted for inflation) for the last two decades. Meanwhile, the cost of many basics, including housing, healthcare and fuel, goes up. The concept of upward mobility is collapsing, and it is the resulting total dependence on a paycheck for survival that makes one working class. And for most of us — professors and painters, poets and plumbers — that's the hard reality of contemporary America.