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What defines the middle class?

Published: Monday, Aug. 12 2013 9:42 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama speaks, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Phoenix. Obama was in Arizona to discuss the economy and the middle class and then to California to tape an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”(AP Photo/Matt York)

Matt York, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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After the effects of the Great Recession, public perception of what defines the middle class seems to have shifted.

While a news poll conducted in 1991 identified "homeownership” as the primary indicator of a middle class lifestyle, a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center showed 86 percent of Americans now believe that title belongs to "having a secure job," a concept that came in fifth in the earlier poll.

This change in priorities, according to Bruce Drake, a senior editor at Pew, is relevant because “President Obama has been on the road citing the need for programs that bolster the middle class.”

Six months before the Pew study, The Atlantic also noticed that homeownership had fallen out of favor, particularly among the younger generations.

“If the last 30 years have taught us anything, it's that planning for the future is an act of faith,” Derek Thompson wrote in his article “The end of ownership: Why aren’t young people buying more houses?”

Buying a house, then, can be interpreted to be a symbol of faith in the future, something Thompson believes the rising generation lacks.

“It's no wonder that in an environment that punishes the long-term faithful, more young people are planning month to month,” he wrote.

But why, then, did having a career jump from fifth place to first, and not, say, a college education — the only other indicator included on both surveys?

As Drake points out, some of the difference between the responses in the 2012 study compared to the 1991 study (which was conducted by Time, CNN and Yankelovich) could be a matter of semantics.

In the 2012 survey, “a secure job” was the language used to describe a career. The 1991 survey calls it “a white collar job,” language that Drake believes to be “narrower and less compelling.”

Either way, the Obama administration has put a lot of effort into convincing Americans that homeownership is still a worthy goal.

“For years, owning a home was a symbol of responsibility and a source of security for millions of middle-class families across the country,” Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan wrote Tuesday on The White House Blog.

“We see this as critically important, not only because housing and home ownership are one of the bedrock cornerstones of the middle class — but also because it is so connected to the other ones.”

JJ Feinauer is a graduate of Southern Virginia University and a content writer for the Moneywise page on DeseretNews.com. Email: jfeinauer@deseretdigital.com, Twitter: @jjfeinauer.

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