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Word Count: 2,650
Being middle class has emerged as a vital part of the 20th-century American pscyhe The majority of Americans define themselves as middle class regardless of their actual income level This perception is obviously off-base but with no official definition its hard to pin down how much Americans overestimate their middle-class status Its not difficult to understand why they do it though Generations of immigrants to the United States have come seeking streets paved with gold Trying to do better than the next guy is virtually a virtue in our free market economy But in 1994 5 percent of US households held 21 percent of the nations aggregate income When people realize that doing as well as the next guy is the best they can hope for aspiring to middle-class status becomes the goal and the virtue Although most would rather be rich than not people often deride those who are out of sheer envy The word yuppie rapidly took on a derogatory connotation in the mid-1980s and consuming in a conspicuous way was considered bad taste in light of others misfortunes As a result even those who achieve affluence may downwardly aspire to respectable and decent middle-class status-not financially of course but as a matter of principle At the other end of the income spectrum people who might have proudly described themselves as working class in the past may now feel uncomfortable with the unfashionable term so they opt for middle class instead Even as the perception of middle class has stretched to encompass an enormous range of people the reality is that economic growth does not raise all boats equally In the decade 1984-94 average household income in real terms rose by less than 1 percent The average income of the poorest one-fifth of households in the US increased by only 01 percent At the same time the top one-fifth of households saw their average income jump by 20 percent
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