Squeezing the middle
The Irish Times is at the moment running a series of journalistic meditations on the 'Squeezed Middle'. The graphic they've chosen to unify the series says it all - a fist clutching 100 euro bills.
I do not have a serious head for economics - but I want to ask a few questions. How is the Irish Times defining 'middle' class? Is it gross earnings? Net earnings after tax? Disposable income? Purchasing power? It's just that you risk robbing the term 'middle class' of all economic meaning if a family with middle-of-the-range gross or net earnings but low purchasing power and an out-of-kilter debt-to-earnings ratio still qualifies as 'middle class'. Isn't some nuance called for? Is it not possible for this 'squeezed' middle to actually consist of erstwhile 'middle-class' wage earners pushed out of that bracket? Is there no such thing as an emergent 'borderline middle class' (meant purely in the economic sense - not as a pejorative) or simply 'the indebted'? How about the plain-vanilla 'poor'?
Qualitatively, the Irish Times seems to have a more fixed image of the 'middle class' when it chooses, as an example of their plight, the rising cost of private education. This would suggest that self-image is seriously out of line with reality and that we're using 'middle class' as a snobby shorthand for 'they speak with the right accent'. It’s an almost Victorian sensibility – the contrast of a 'deserving' poor with those contemptible 'welfare scroungers'. Certainly, it is hard to empathise if the 'working class', in this scenario are the ones foregoing food and electricity and heating while this 'squeezed middle' must contemplate sending their children to (gasp) the local free school.
Let me emphasise, for the avoidance of doubt, that if you, the reader, consider yourself 'the squeezed middle' and yet you've not been able to pay the ESB bill, I think you're in dire straits. The 'squeezed middle' trope does not convey fully that you're in wage slavery. Is it even fair to employ the phrase 'the coping classes' ? It seems like actual poverty. We’re avoiding calling a spade a spade.
The strange thing about the Irish Times’s paean to its 'middle class' readership, of course, is how the newspaper, as much as the Sunday Independent, cheerled the property bubble and was up to its oxters in facilitating the speculation itself. The Irish Times’s myhome.ie venture was a calamitous failure and has encumbered the paper with significant debts. Perhaps the Irish Times is simply projecting onto the rest of us by talking of a 'squeezed middle'; I shan't take the amateur psychoanalysis beyond that.
Furthermore, what does 'squeezed middle' mean, more prosaically? Who is doing the squeezing? Is it a squeeze by the government to extract revenue or is it a suggestion that the super rich and the abject poor are getting more attention than the benighted middle? That seems rather insulting, not least because, as I have said, most of the 'squeezed middle class' being cited as examples are in fact a new poor. Or at the very least a (growing) body of the relatively poor.
I come from the 'middle class'. Quite possibly even the upper middle-class. Family earnings are in the region of approximately €55-60k per annum (two wage earners.) We have outgoings, but there isn't a significant household debt and we have savings. If we've been squeezed it's not quite a sharp pincer doing it: there have been wage cuts and increased taxation to bear (which isn't welcome) but we're still very far from destitution. We benefited from free university fees, but stayed out of the private school racket, shop in local supermarkets, and have *one* credit card which we pay off in full every month. I will fully concede to the socialist firebrands amongst us that we're as bourgeois as they come.
A suggestion then: it isn't the 'squeezed middle' we need to worry about. It's that disappearing, eroding or shrinking middle who, it seems, are going to wind up bankrupt (i.e. effectively destitute) due to mortgage repayments (inter alia) in the foreseeable future. Whatever agenda the Irish Times is peddling isn't really helping them: as this biting image by twitter user @Oireachtas_RX so aptly satirises.