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January 22, 2013 3:06 PM What Is the Middle Class?

By Andrew Gelman

I noticed an interesting juxtaposition in two recent NYT articles.

A few days ago, in a news article by Al Baker on “gifted and talented” programs in public schools:

For critics of New York City’s gifted and talented programs, that image crystallizes what they say is a flawed system that reinforces racial separation in the city’s schools and contributes to disparities in achievement.
They contend that gifted admissions standards favor middle-class children, many of them white or Asian, over black and Hispanic children who might have equal promise …
Urban districts were seen as using the programs to help prevent white flight from the schools, in essence offering a system within the system that was white-majority and focused on achievement… . “Certainly there was concern with keeping middle-class families involved in public schools, and to the extent that we use tests to select kids for gifted programs, that tends to skew the programs toward children from wealthier, white families.”

In an opinion article by Joseph Stiglitz about the economy:

Our middle class is too weak to support the consumer spending that has historically driven our economic growth. While the top 1 percent of income earners took home 93 percent of the growth in incomes in 2010, the households in the middle — who are most likely to spend their incomes rather than save them and who are, in a sense, the true job creators — have lower household incomes, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1996… . the hollowing out of the middle class since the 1970s, a phenomenon interrupted only briefly in the 1990s … the weakness of the middle class is holding back tax receipts …

It’s interesting how in Baker’s article, the “middle class” = wealthy and comfortable, while in Stiglitz’s article, the “middle class” are struggling and are being “hollowed out.” In one case, the middle class are the bad guys and in the other case they’re the good guys.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.