The news is full of stories about how tough times are for the middle class. Story after story talks about how jobs are disappearing, prices are rising, and many essentials, such as healthcare and education, are growing steadily more expensive and harder to afford. Politicians fall over each other to offer solutions, promising everything from tax reform to better schools to “save the middle class.”
However, what politicians aren’t always so clear about is just who is in the middle class they’re so eager to save. They talk in general terms about “ordinary Americans” or “working families,” but they seldom offer a clear-cut definition of what these groups look like. And when they do try – for example, when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton promised during the 2015 Democratic debates that she wouldn’t raise taxes on households with incomes below $250,000 – their views are often attacked as unrealistic.
Actually, it’s hardly surprising that politicians have difficultly figuring out how to define the middle class. Social class in America is an incredibly complex subject – so complex that reporters from the The New York Times devoted more than a year to exploring it without coming to any firm conclusions. The closest the paper could come to a definition was to say that social class involves “a combination of income, education, wealth and occupation” – and every one of these factors plays a role in defining who the middle class is and what it needs.
Views of the Middle Class
Just do an Internet search on the phrase “middle class,” and you can easily see that not everyone agrees on what it means. News stories that talk about the middle class – usually in combination with words like “squeezed,” “burdened,” or “vanishing” – often tie the term to income, but their actual numbers vary. Opinion polls are even murkier, with people at different income levels having vastly different views about who is and who isn’t middle class.
The Middle Class According to the Media
To see how media views of the middle class vary, consider the way two different news outlets treated a story about a 2015 study conducted at Princeton University. The study found that mortality was on the rise among middle-aged, non-Hispanic white Americans – particularly those with no education beyond high school. The Star-Ledger, a New Jersey newspaper, frames this as a story about “the casualty rate in the war against the American middle class.” By contrast, The Christian Science Monitor describes the group featured in the study as “white, working-class Americans in red states.”
On the surface, it sounds like these two news outlets are directly contradicting each other. However, a 2012 story about the American class system from U.S. News & World Report shows how there could actually be some overlap between their differing definitions.
The article classifies Americans into three broad groups: the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy. However, it also says the middle class includes three subcategories:
- Working Class. People in this group typically have blue-collar jobs – the kind where you work with your hands – and are paid on an hourly rather than a salaried basis. They also tend to have low levels of education.
- Lower-Middle Class. The article defines this group as “lower-level, white-collar workers”: office workers with lower income and little authority. It says most of them have college degrees, but not advanced degrees, and their income ranges from $32,500 to $60,000 ($33,670 to $62,150 in 2015 dollars).
- Upper-Middle Class. This group, also called the professional class, fills the upper ranks of offices. Workers in this group often have post-graduate degrees and can earn as much as $150,000 ($155,390 in 2015 dollars).
If you look at the middle class in this way, then the “working-class Americans” described in The Christian Science Monitor are actually a subset of the “middle class” discussed in the Star-Ledger. According to this view, “middle class” is a very broad, catchall term that covers people with vastly different incomes, occupations, and levels of education. With such a wide range of possible meanings, it’s hardly surprising that people have trouble pinning down the term.
How Americans Classify Themselves
When you ask Americans what class they consider themselves to be a part of, their answers often have less to do with how much money they have than with how they think they’re doing relative to others. Even a CNBC survey of millionaires – people wealthier than 90% of all Americans – found that 84% described themselves as either middle-class or upper-middle-class, because they tend to compare themselves to other millionaires. Another NBC News poll found that people who are happy with their lives tend to see themselves as higher-class, regardless of how much money they actually make.
For many years, the majority of Americans described themselves as middle-class. However, polls by the Pew Research Center show that fewer and fewer are doing so. In 2008, 53% of Americans said they were middle-class; by 2014, only 44% did. Clearly, the number of people who feel like they fit into the middle class is dropping.
The reason why probably has less to do with actual income or wealth than with what people think the term “middle class” should mean. When CNN asked readers what being middle class meant to them, the responses tended to focus on security. Readers thought a middle-class person should be able to live in reasonable comfort and pay all the bills without “feeling squeezed.” The falling numbers in the Pew poll suggest that fewer Americans now feel this way.
Defining the Middle Class
Clearly, the term “middle class” doesn’t have just one meaning that everybody can agree on. When people describe themselves as middle class, they aren’t just talking about their income or how much money they have in the bank – they’re talking about how they feel about their lives and how they see themselves relative to the rest of the world.
However, even if there’s no way to settle on a single, clear definition of “middle class,” it’s still possible to sort out the multiple layers of meaning that go into the term. As the 2012 U.S. News article shows, the concept of class is linked to income and wealth, but it also includes education and the kind of work you do. The ideas offered in the CNN poll show that the idea of “middle class” has other meanings that are even harder to pin down, such as your lifestyle and how comfortable you feel with your place in the world.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for the United States was $53,657 in 2014, so you would expect middle-class people to have income somewhere around this level. However, economists don’t all agree on how close to the median income you actually have to be to qualify as middle class.
Several possible ways have been proposed to define the middle class based on median income:
- Middle Quintile. One particularly narrow definition limits the middle class to households in the middle quintile for income – that is, those who make more than the poorest 40% of Americans and less than the richest 40%. That definition would put the income range for the middle class between $41,187 and $68,212.
- Middle Three Quintiles. The problem with the middle-quintile rule is that it automatically limits the size of the middle class to exactly 20% of the population. A broader definition would include everyone but the poorest 20% and the richest 20%. Under this rule, any household with an income between $21,433 and $112,262 would qualify as middle-class.
- The Reich Rule. U.S. News cites an in-between definition proposed by Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. He suggests defining the middle class as everyone with incomes 50% lower to 50% higher than the median – that is, between 50% and 150% of the median income. Under this rule, a middle-class household could make anywhere from $26,829 to $80,485.
- The Pew Formula. Social scientists at the Pew Research Center use a more complex formula. First, they adjust household income based on family size, on the theory that each dollar goes further for a small family than for a large one. They use these size-adjusted incomes to calculate a new median income of around $61,000. Finally, they define “middle income” households as making between two-thirds and twice the median income – $40,667 to $122,000. However, Pew researchers make a point of saying that their middle-income group isn’t exactly the same as the middle class, since their definition doesn’t factor in wealth, education, occupation, or social values.
Another complicating factor is that the median itself varies a lot from place to place. An article in Business Insider, which calculates the middle income for all 50 U.S. states based on the Pew formula, finds that a middle-class family in Mississippi could make anywhere from $25,309 to $75,926 per year. To be considered middle-class in Maryland, that same family would need anywhere from $48,322 to $144,966 per year.
CNN has an even more specific tool that lets you see how your income stacks up based on the exact county where you live. When I input our household income for 2014, I discovered that my husband and I were near the lower end of the middle class for Middlesex County, New Jersey, where we live. However, if we moved to Marion County, Indiana, where my husband grew up, the same income level would bump us out of the middle class and into the upper class.
Income is probably the most common measure of how wealthy a person is, but it’s really only part of the picture. For instance, a person who has just retired after years of making a six-figure salary now has a very low income, but probably has lots of money in the bank and in investments. Looking at net worth along with income gives a more complete view of wealth, and by extension, class.
A 2015 report by the Federal Reserve shows that the average net worth for U.S. households was $85,712 in the middle of 2015. What’s less obvious is just how close you have to be to this average to be considered “middle class.”
CNN cites a formula proposed by Edward Wolff, a professor of economics at New York University, that defines the middle class as the middle three quintiles of the wealth spectrum – that is, all but the richest and poorest 20%. According to this formula, the middle class covers every level of net worth from $0 to $401,000. Anyone above that range is “wealthy,” and anyone below it is in debt.
Although net worth is a more accurate measurement to gauge wealth than income, it still only covers one part of the concept of class. Your actual social status depends not just on how much money you make, but also on how you make it. This is clear from the 2012 U.S. News story, which defines the working class, lower-middle class, and upper-middle class mainly by the type of work they do, rather than how much they earn.
In general, people who work in offices are viewed as higher in status than those who do any kind of manual work. A 2005 interactive graphic from The New York Times shows that even highly skilled workers, such as electricians and mechanics, are considered only middle-class in terms of social status. By contrast, people with intellectual jobs, such as teachers, fall into the upper-middle class – even if they don’t make as much money.
Increasingly, higher-status jobs – which are often higher-paying as well – are the ones that require a college degree. That’s why a college diploma is often seen as a ticket of admission to the middle class. The U.S. News scheme sorts people into classes based largely on how much education they have, defining a college degree as a necessity for the lower-middle class and a graduate degree for the upper-middle class.
Pew Research polls suggest that Americans increasingly agree with this view. In 2008, Pew reports, 24% of Americans who had some college experience but no degree described themselves as either lower or lower-middle class. By 2014, that percentage had nearly doubled to 47%. Without a college diploma, these people felt, they couldn’t really qualify as middle or upper-middle class.
However, economists at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank think that the role of education in social class is more complicated than a simple dividing line between those with a degree and those without one. They argue that education combines with age and race to affect a family’s income and wealth. If the head of a family is young, has less than a high-school education, or belongs to a disadvantaged minority (African-American or Hispanic), the family is more likely to be poor. By contrast, if the head of the family is middle-aged or older, is white or Asian, and has a college degree, the family is likely to be wealthy.
Based on these factors, the Fed paper classifies families with a head at least 40 years old into three groups:
- Stragglers. This group includes families where the head of household has no high school diploma, or else has a high school diploma and is also black or Hispanic. In 2013, straggler households as a group had a median income between $25,000 and $30,000, and a median net worth below $40,000.
- Middle Class. This group includes families headed by someone who is white or Asian with a high school diploma, but no further education. It also includes families where the head of household is black or Hispanic and has a college degree. In this group, the median income for 2013 was just below $50,000, and the median net worth was a little more than $100,000.
- Thrivers. Families in the “thriver” group are headed by someone who is Asian or non-Hispanic white and has a two-year or four-year college degree. The median income for thriver households in 2013 was close to $100,000, and the median net worth was more than $450,000.
Social class isn’t just about what you have – it’s also about what you do with it. As Mary Patillo, a sociologist at Northwestern University, explains in an interview with NBC News, “We read people’s class through how they talk, walk, how they travel, how they act, where they live.” In other words, when people think of being middle class, they don’t usually focus on a specific yearly salary – instead they think of having a house in the suburbs.
Aside from work and education, some of the lifestyle factors that people traditionally associate with the middle class include the following:
All this takes money. CNN quotes James X. Sullivan, an economics professor at Notre Dame University, as defining the middle class based on how much they spend on both necessities, such as food and housing, and on luxuries, such as entertainment. (He doesn’t count healthcare and education expenses, which he says could be considered investments.) The middle class, he argues, is the group that falls into the middle quintile for spending in these categories – between about $38,000 and $50,000 per year.
By contrast, consumer advocate Bob Sullivan thinks that Professor Sullivan’s estimate is far too low for a family of four. He calculates that to live a middle-class lifestyle takes an annual budget of around $100,000. This includes rent and utilities on a three-bedroom apartment, food and clothing, healthcare, payments on car loans and student loans, daycare for the younger child, and private school tuition for the older one.
One reason these two estimates differ so widely is that one includes healthcare and education and the other does not. However, another factor is regional differences in the cost of living – which, like income, varies considerably from place to place. Bob Sullivan calculates his budget for a middle-class family living near “one of America’s largest cities – Washington, D.C., or Seattle, or Chicago.” As this calculator from Bankrate shows, the cost of living in these cities is significantly higher than in many other parts of the country.
One of the biggest factors in these regional differences is the cost of housing. A student at the University of Michigan stirred up a major controversy when she published a piece in The Michigan Daily arguing that her family’s $250,000-per-year income only makes them “middle class” in her hometown of Palo Alto, California. The main reason, she claimed, was that they had to pay $2 million just to own a “modest three-bedroom, two-bath” house.
A final way of defining the middle class has less to do with present lifestyle and more to do with goals for the future. When the Obama administration formed a Middle Class Task Force to help raise the standards of middle-class families, the task force examined several definitions of the term “middle class” and concluded that middle-class families are “defined by their aspirations more than their income.”
It found that the dreams of middle-class families include the following:
- Car ownership
- Family vacations
- Health and retirement security
- A college education for their children
The Christian Science Monitor takes a slightly different view. It argues that in the past, middle class status was “an aspirational state of being – upward mobility coupled with a measure of financial stability.” In other words, it wasn’t so much about what you have right now as about the idea that you’re moving steadily upward in the world. However, the article argues that today, belief is growing steadily less common – which is probably why the group of people who describe themselves as middle class keeps shrinking.
It isn’t really possible to define the middle class simply in terms of income. When people think about being middle-class, they don’t think about a specific dollar figure – they think about having a certain type of life, both for themselves and for their children. A salary that can buy you a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in one part of the country could leave you struggling to get by in another part.
To understand the middle class fully, you have to consider the big picture. Income and wealth are a part of that, but so are education, lifestyle, and goals. Middle-class Americans want to have reliable jobs that pay well, to get decent healthcare, to pay their bills without struggling, and to enjoy small luxuries, such as family vacations. They want to own homes and cars, to send their kids to college, and to retire in comfort.
So if politicians really want to help the middle class, they should focus on ways to help people with these plans. That could mean creating more high-paying jobs or looking for ways to keep existing jobs in America. It could also mean making it easier for Americans to get good healthcare, afford a home, pay for college, and save for retirement. Figuring out the best way to achieve these goals is tricky, but at least the goals themselves are pretty easy to identify.
Do you think of yourself as middle class? Why or why not?