Monday, October 02, 2006

The British Middle Class.... and Pittsburgh's

So you may think this is a post that does not have anything to do with Pittsburgh.... it will if you read to the end.

The main headline of London’s Daily Mail over the weekend was “March of the Middle Class”. The British equivalent of the Census Bureau, the Office of National Statistics, has released a study that characterized just over half of the British labor force as “middle class” for the first time. The article is fascinating for a lot of reasons. First is that it was a front page story at all. There are regular stories in the US on the topic of income distribution, but rarely do they get anywhere near top of the fold on the front page. While some of us think that movement in the US income distribution is really important, it rarely is that much of a media story here. Secondly, the article explains that the British definition of Middle Class is not really based on income at all, but is actually a taxonomy based solely upon the occupation of workers. So if you did “white collar” work you were categorized as middle class and if you did anything remotely categorized as manual work you were not.. no matter how much you earned. Some of the groupings are strange. In the not middle class category includes 'students' and 'rest home residents' as well as long term unemployed.

The Pittsburgh link. The US income distribution has long been categorized by a large middle class or at least a distribution that looks like a form of log-normal distribution. i.e. there is a long ‘tail’ of high income people but nonetheless the bulk of the population near the median income. You might say it is a defining characteristic of America to have that large middle class.. but like many things you need to make an exception for Pittsburgh. If you go back 30-40 years wages in Pittsburgh did not have anything like a normal distribution. It actually had a bimodal distribution which means there were two humps. It was very atypical for a region in the US even back then. It was sort of like dividing workers into haves and have nots that were clearly different from each other. That 2nd higher hump of workers were clearly blue collar manufacturing workers. Thus by British standards most of the higher income workers in Pittsburgh would have been excluded from the middle class.

That bimodal distribution of income distribution in Pittsburgh has gone away as the economy here looks more and more like the US as a whole.. but I believe that a lot of social behavior in Pittsburgh is one of those legacies of the past economy. If you had a much higher or lower income than someone else you tended to segregate yourself from them. Is a lot of the perceived parochialism in Pittsburgh to this day due the what the income distribution looked like back then? Much of the population here was born, raised and worked much of their careers when this bifurcated income structure was quite real. Just something worth thinking about.

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