One of the most firmly entrenched myths of the American Ideology is that the U.S. is a “middle class society,” a “land of opportunity” where anyone who works hard has the opportunity to achieve the standard of living which has made America “the envy of the world.” A common, and spot on, rejoinder has been to remind us that America has always had a sizable class of permanently poor people and that it is just factually false that those ready, willing and able to work are on the path to middle class status.
But does this reply concede too much? Has there ever been a substantial middle class in America? Or has a poor working class been able to mask its condition by accessing an institution that has disguised a large portion of a poor working class as a middle class? The best place to start is with the history of the modern American middle class.