SUNNYVALE, California — "I'm poor," said K., with a shrug. "Really poor."
K. has a PhD from a prestigious university, owns a house in a comfortable Midwestern city, goes to the movies at least once a week, and has a Kitchen Aid mixer. She reads good books, has skied in Aspen and has seen much of the world. There is a bottle of Mumm's in her refrigerator and she knows what caviar tastes like.
By education, habits and tastes, K. is an upper-middle-class professional. But at present, due to some unfortunate medical circumstances and a few well considered but financially disadvantageous career choices, K. makes under $40,000 a year — sometimes less. This, according to the data and statistics that attempt to capture and confine the increasingly elusive concept of "middle class," drums her, at best, to the lower ranks of that ephemeral classification.
Experts peg "middle class" status at about $33,000 to $100,000 per year — although in populated areas, it's decidely challenging to subsist on less than $50,000.
The middle class designation is largely "self-described" and the vast majority of Americans place themselves firmly within its ranks, regardless of income. Few would accept being called "lower class," and only the very rich are willing to label themselves as such.
This is what makes the mythical middle class so attractive a target for political candidates, especially in the 2012 presidential election campaign.
As the long and bitter contest inches its way toward a culmination, there is perhaps no other term that has been so used or abused.
During the first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the term "middle class" was employed 15 times, mostly by the president.
He called for a new "economic patriotism," because, as he said, "America does best when the middle class is doing well."
Obama talked a lot about "ladders of opportunity" and a "fair shot" — his philosophy has the government as a sort of referee, keeping the playing field level and applying the rules fairly to all.
Romney, also, addressed the middle class in the debate, promising tax relief and jobs. But he trusts Adam Smith's invisible hand much more than the helping hand of the government.
The two running mates were even more eager to court the great voter pool in their clash on Oct. 11. Vice President Joe Biden appealed to the middle class 15 times, Paul Ryan eight. Their dispute centered on whose tax plan would be most advantageous for middle-income families.
The players in this election invoke the "middle class" constantly, vowing to protect it, to save it, to rebuild it.
Occasionally the two parties get a bit carried away with their rhetoric.
Earlier this month, Biden told a group of supporters in Charlotte, NC that the middle class had been "buried" for the past four years.
The Romney campaign immediately pounced on the statement as an indictment of the Obama administration.
Romney has landed himself in hot water on more than one occasion with his limited understanding of who and what the middle class actually is.
In September, he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that middle income was "$200,000 to $250,000 and less." When asked if $100,000 would count as middle income, he said "no."
On another notable occasion, in May, at a secretly recorded fundraiser, Romney addressed a group of super-wealthy, each of whom had paid $50,000 for the privilege of hearing him.
Here his view of Americans was even darker. Fully 47 percent, he said, paid no taxes, expected government handouts, and, adding insult to injury, would never vote for him.
"And so my job is not to worry about those people — I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," he said, provoking a firestorm of anger and protest, and providing the Obama campaign with ample fodder for attack ads.
Obama had been doing well among the middle-income swath of voters: When asked "whose policies would do more to help the middle class?" Obama enjoyed a nine-point advantage this summer, according to the Pew Research Center.
That lead all but evaporated in the wake of the president's disappointing debate performance in early October, after which Obama and Romney were virtually tied on the question of appeal to the middle class.
Many observers have remarked on the curious attraction that Romney's "up by the bootstraps" rhetoric has for what many would see as the normal Democratic base — lower-middle-class voters who often depend on government programs to help them get ahead.
"My cousin loves Mitt Romney," said one Obama supporter in California. She is a mother of two small children, with a solidly middle-class lifestyle. Her cousin, though, had barely finished high school and was working in a menial job.
"He somehow thinks that Romney will make him a millionaire," she said. "He is voting for Romney the same way he buys lottery tickets."
This, according to retired Judge Joseph Dimmick, is a normal part of the electoral game.
"Conservatives are those who have, or who identify with those who have," he said in an interview at his home in Salt Lake City. "It is based on anger and aggression. Conservatives feel they are the real backbone of the society, and they fear that the government is giving away what is theirs to those less deserving."
This was certainly the attitude of many voters in conservative states like Arizona. An adjunct professor at Arizona State University, in Tucson, said she is opposed to any government handouts.
"I had a brother, a real screw-up, who got everything from my parents," she said. "If they had not done that, perhaps he would have gotten it together."
So, if you really need help, the argument goes, you should not get it almost by definition.
This election, more than any other in recent memory, is forcing every voter to examine his or her idea of what it means to be free, middle class and American. It has turned into a referendum, not just on the economy, but on the American Dream.
Nobel laureate in economics Joseph Stiglitz, author of "The Price of Inequality," writes extensively on the subject, and his columns make for uncomfortable reading.
"Nowadays … the American dream is a myth," he argues in a recent online post.
"There is less equality of opportunity in the United States today than there is in Europe — or, indeed, in any advanced industrial country for which there are data."
This, says Stiglitz, is having a devastating effect on the economy and on the political system.
"Inequality leads to lower growth and less efficiency," he writes. "Lack of opportunity means that [a country's] most valuable asset — its people — is not being fully used. Many at the bottom, or even in the middle, are not living up to their potential, because the rich, needing few public services and worried that a strong government might redistribute income, use their political influence to cut taxes and curtail government spending."
This is at the crux of the political debate in this election: big government versus small, tough love versus a hand up, "ladders of opportunity" versus self-reliance.
It is no longer as simple as Paul Ryan, for one, would have us think. In his speech in Norfolk, Va., on the day he was named Mitt Romney's running mate, the vice presidential candidate sounded a theme that has become a standard in his stump speeches throughout the country.
After introducing his wife Janna and their children, he said: "Janna and I tell Liza, Charlie and Sam that America is a place where, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead."
"We Americans look at one another's success with pride, not resentment," he continued, "because we know, as more Americans work hard, take risks, and succeed, more people will prosper, our communities will benefit, and individual lives will be improved and uplifted."
This is undoubtedly true, and it plays well with those who have made it into the ranks of the middle class from humble beginnings.
But that sentiment, while noble, is not playing out in actuality across these United States.
L. and K. have worked very hard and played by all of the rules. Both partners are Ivy League educated, one is a medical doctor, the other has an MBA. A new job necessitated a move, and, unable to unload their tiny two-bedroom house for a reasonable price, they sought refuge with parents — along with their three children and a dog.
Any rational measure would put these two in the upper quintile of earners — but with student loans, child care fees, and payments on a house they cannot live in but cannot yet sell, they are struggling.
Their American Dream has been waylaid by the housing market crisis, the astronomical cost of education, and a host of other factors that they have little control over.
In California, a pediatrician with deep pockets, and an even deeper concern for the future of her children and the country, is worrying. She herself is doing well, as she freely acknowledges, and is committed to the Obama campaign.
But her major worry is that her children will not have the opportunities she has had.
"If this election becomes a referendum on the economy, Obama will lose," she said. "With Romney, I'll get richer, but others will not. It saddens me that my children will have a hard time doing better than me. The people at the top seem to have kicked the rungs out of the upward mobility ladder."
She shook her head and sighed.
"We used to be the greatest nation on earth, but that is no longer the case," she said.