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Lori Valigra’s “Maine’s middle class is shrinking” in the BDN correctly points to Maine’s widening income gap and illuminates the income disparity between the Portland metropolitan area and other parts of the state. Regrettably, the rest of her analysis conflates the concepts income and class.
Middle income does not equate with middle class. Saying so is misleading and disempowering. It produces what I believe are wildly inaccurate statements, such as, “Nationally, only 50 percent of Americans were middle class in 2021 compared with 61 percent in 1971,” thereby exaggerating the size of the middle-class. Class isn’t simply about how much money one makes. Anyone who must sell their labor power for a wage, and can’t produce life’s necessities for themselves, is working class. The working class constitutes the vast majority. Its class position is relative to a middle class, that is but half its size, and a small ruling class whose social and economic dominance is rooted in an economic system that privileges those who own the means of production.
The way Valigra defines and uses “class” has the effect of concealing vital social processes. It also obscures the impact of other factors, like social status and overall wealth, that determine one’s position in the economy. Worse, it doesn’t recognize that classes are collectivities that possess a social existence beyond the reality and capacity of individual members. When we deploy the concept of class the way Valigra does, we dismiss the collective agency of the working-class majority, and foreclose on the potential it possesses to alter the imbalance of power in existing class relationships.
Christopher N. McKinnon