Sarah Kendzior in her Twitter feed today (@sarahkendzior) drew attention to an older article of hers. Written in February after the State of the Union address she asks “Who is Obama’s Middle Class?” Her analysis of what constitutes the “middle class” was a response to this statement from the President’s address:
“We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle- class kid is priced out of a college education.”
While Kendzior used this as a jumping off point to muse on the demographics of the shrinking middle class, I wondered something else– why reference the middle class here at all? Why not say that “no kid is priced out of a college education?”
My theory is that the way “middle class” is being used in political discourse is not an economic category at all. I believe it is a moral category. The expression “middle class” signals that these kids are deserving as opposed to the undeserving poor. It is being used the way someone might say “Good Christians.” It is meant to indicate “people like us,” “people who share our values.”
“Overall, Moffitt discovered a distinct trend of welfare benefits going to those who are regarded as ‘deserving’ of support. More directly put, the government and voters prefer that aid go to those who work, who are married and who have kids.”
More and more our government programs are designed to weed out the undeserving from the deserving. “Deserving” as been linked with the middle class the way the word poor has been linked with its opposite, as if the word were “undeservingpoor.”
What Obama is really saying with this line, therefore, is that we want to be sure “no deserving kid is priced out of college.” And significantly, that none of “our” (middle class/deserving) money will be spent on “them” (undeservingpoor).