Back in the day, there was a television show called “To Tell The Truth.” A panel of four celebrities would try to guess which one of three characters was telling the truth about their identity. One central character and two imposters each spun stories to convince the celebrities she was the real Joanna Schmoe. In the end, the host would say, “Will the real Joanna Schmoe please stand up?” At that time, the real Joanna Schmoe would reveal herself and the imposters would telltheir true identities.
Well, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words “middle class” tossed to and fro and applied to as many economic levels as I have over the past few months—especially when it comes to tax cuts, tax hikes, or tax anything.
So, let’s play a little game. Shall we? Let’s play “To Tell the Truth about the Middle Class.”
All three contestants claim to be “Ms. Middle Class,” but which one really is?
Contestant number one says: “I am Ms. Middle Class.”
Here is her profile: Montessori pre-school, SAT and ACT tutorials starting in grade school, school musicals, private dance lessons, private gymnastics, soccer… lots of soccer, leased SUV, professional career, gardeners for the lawn, part-time nanny, part-time housekeeper, combined household salary of $100,000-$166,000 per year (up to $250,000 if she’s somewhere like New York City or San Francisco), inherited furniture mixed with stylish new pieces, independent voter, leans right on fiscal matters, leans left on social issues, anti-smoking, pro-parks, anti-nukes, pro-special trips to the spa. She lives in or near a major city. If in the city, she has a doorman. If in the suburbs, she has a two-car garage. If in a major city she’s a high-end renter. If in the burbs, let’s just say she has an in-ground pool in the back yard. She juggles credit cards, kids' clubs, and flight miles programs and brings home the turkey bacon, but the housekeeper fries it up in the Calphalon pan.
Contestant number two says: “I am Ms. Middle Class.”
Here is her profile: Public schools, PTAs, Pell Grants, La-Z-boys, brown panel basement where stuff gets stored and the men go to drink, shoot pool, and throw darts, holes in walls covered by prints of famous paintings, gardens and lawns tended by mom and dad, lawn chairs and barbecue pits carted from the local Home Depot in the back of dad’s pre-owned SUV, the family day-trip to the beach or the annual camping trip because weeklong vacations at a resort are a pipe dream, no stamps in the passport—or no passport, stairs that squeak (or slant), teenage baby-sitters, live-in grandparents, the never-ending struggle to decide which bills will be Peter and which will be Paul on bill payment due dates, improvised home remedies for abscessed teeth, sweat on foreheads at the check-out counter as she prays that her last credit card isn’t maxed out … yet, a combined income of $25,000-$100,000, which pays for the 132 more payments on the home mortgage worth $25,000-$100,000.
Contestant number three says: “I am Ms. Middle Class.”
Here is her profile: CEO of Whatever, Inc., investments and capital gains, major donor to political party, major financial engine behind social causes, multiple homes—at least one with a pool or a beach in the back yard, mix of inherited and new furniture, contracted interior decorators for most homes, Marc Jacobs boutique clerks know her by name, combined household income of $800,000 per year, full-time nanny, full-time maid, full-time driver, private tutor, private school, Ivy League colleges for kids, first-class travel, 34 stamps in her passport. What’s a basement?
Will the real Ms. Middle Class please stand up?
Contestant number two stands up. She is the real Ms. Middle Class. According to the Census bureau, median household family income in the U.S. is $49,445. For a non-family household, it’s $29,730. The Real Ms. Middle Class is one layoff, one unexpected hospital visit, one pregnancy away from inching closer to the poverty line—$23,050 for a family of four.
In the name of protecting the “middle class” some politicians have been pressing for extensions of the Bush Tax Cuts for all earnings up to $1 million. They are calling folks in the top 1 percent “middle class.” This week, President Obama announced that he would extend the Bush era tax cuts for all earnings up to $250,000, but not beyond this threshold. Still hard to swallow the idea of those being “middle class” tax breaks, but it’s an improvement from calling millionaires “middle class.”
While Jesus loves everybody, there is no Christian tradition of teaching God’s “preferential option for the middle class.” For Christians, it’s still about the poorest and most vulnerable, and here is why these tax issues matter to those Jesus called “the least of these.”
Last year’s Budget Control Act delivered $1 trillion in cuts to defense and nondefense spending over the next 10 years. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), Congress will have to find more than $3 trillion in additional 10-year budget savings in order to stabilize America’s debt by the end of the decade.
In a recent report CBPP explained that, if Congress lets the Bush era tax cuts expire for earnings above $250,000, then America can count on $829 billion – almost $1 trillion – added to its coffers over the next 10 years. On the other hand, if the cuts are extended for earnings up to $1 million, then America can kiss $366 billion of that savings good-bye. The loss will need to be made up somewhere, and it will likely strike poor people first with cuts to Medicaid, CHIP, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Head Start, and housing. Then it will strike at the heart of the real middle class with cuts to public education, Pell Grants, and the Affordable Care Act.
I ask: When was the last time you saw a millionaire sweat it out at the check-out counter? When was the last time you saw someone making $800,000 per year call the neighbor to see if her teenager could babysit? When was the last time you saw someone making $500,000 a year rejoicing that they can finally afford to buy a pre-owned Ford Escort made in the late 1990s?
I can just see the real Ms. Middle Class standing up and saying, “Never.”
What if real Jesus followers of every tax bracket stood with the poor—and those in danger of becoming poor—and called their senators? And what if the Jesus followers being disingenuously propped up as middle class demanded that their legislators tell the truth? What if their faith led them to declare: “I am not middle class and I do not support a vote for a tax cut that would place the vulnerable in jeopardy down the road.” What if?
What a beautiful day that would be.
Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author ofLeft, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politicsand author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat