Who is middle class?

The word “middle class” is often used in politics these days.

However, it appears to be a somewhat loosely defined word. Politicians often claim that their policies benefit the middle class - neither the deadbeats nor the idle rich, but the hardworking, ambitious people who make society work.

Often, the word “middle class” seems to be used for anybody with a decent job who doesn’t live in a mansion. It could be defined by a certain income range, certain types of jobs, certain levels of education or certain levels of accumulated wealth, and probably other ways. Anybody making over 40K? Anybody who owns most of his home? Anybody either in management or working in a job which requires a college degree? Does you have to be white-collar? And where does the upper limit go?

If you were to formulate a strict definition of who is middle class, what would it be? One sentence, please, as short as you can make it.

Traditional measure is to divide by quintiles. I.e. cut the population into five equal parts. By name the quintiles are lower, lower middle, middle, upper middle, & upper.

Current household income for each are roughly as follows:
Lower: $0 - $20,000
Lower Middle: $20,000 - $35,000
Middle: $35,000 - $55,000
Upper Middle: $55,000 - $90,000
Upper: $90,000+

So using the broadest terms, one is middle class if one lives in a household with a combined income of $20,000 to $90,000. In the narrowest terms, one is middle class if one lives in a household with a combined income of $35,000 to $55,000.

The definition is highly variable. Roughly, I think of it much as Bartman laid out. Here is a Wiki article on the subject. I would say that people who are in the ‘middle class’ are simply those who self identify that they are in it…just like everything else. It’s not up to me to decide if someone else is or isn’t middle class, just like it’s really not up to them to decide if I am.

IIRC, a huge majority of Americans self identify as being in the ‘middle class’, ranging from household or even individual salaries at Bartman’s lower level to well above his upper level (I know folks who have annual salaries well into 6 figures who consider themselves ‘middle class’).


It would also depend on the local cost of living.

90,000 might get you into a tiny studio apt. in NYC or SF and yet a decent house in St Louis would be within reach.

By the same token, most people are smart, attractive, astonishingly witty and possess personal hygiene which is above reproach.

I’m thinking that without a clear, succinct definition of exactly what is meant by “middle class”, public discourse is bound to suffer. Let’s face it, most of the time it’s just another weasel word.

There are some words we use when discussing politics that have a good, clear definition - deficit, for instance, or inflation. You can justify the deficit, but you can’t deny it.

Not so with, for instance, the question of whether, say, the Bush tax cuts mostly benefit “the rich” or merely “the more successful parts of the middle class”.

Lower class is everyone who qualifies for government assistance like food stamps, Section 8 (?) housing, etc. and don’t pay any taxes but receive monies back.

Upper class are people making combing household income of at least $250,000. People whom the inheritance tax actually affects.

Middle class is everyone else in between. Some people that get qualify for some kinds of government assistance may be lower middle class. Some people that make $250,000 are just upper middle class.

I mean this on a household basis, not per person.

And who are you to tell them they aren’t those things? Do YOU think you are any of those things?

And yet, people self identify with those terms. Perhaps you think they are just ‘weasel words’ but then so are ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. In reality, many people who self identify as ‘liberal’ hold views that others would consider ‘conservative’…and vice versa.

The trouble is that a real definition of ‘middle class’ doesn’t lend itself to real precision, since the definition is going to vary wildly depending on who you ask. As another poster suggested, it’s also going to depend on where you are talking about. Someone who lives in California might be struggling at $90k/year annual household salary, while someone in a small rural town might be living high on the hog at $30k/year. There are going to be myriad other factors, including size of the family, debt and expenses, etc etc.

Saying either is to spin things for partisan reasons. The Bush tax cuts benefited everyone who pays taxes proportionately. That’s sort of why the Dems fought so hard to keep the tax cuts for everyone who makes less than $250k. If it was of no benefit to the majority of tax payers (and I define ‘benefit’ here to mean ‘they will pay less taxes’) then they wouldn’t have bothered, right? I mean, why would they, if no one but ‘the rich’ benefited and they could have simply let the things expire?


In Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (originally published 1983), Paul Fussell defines the “middle class” by culture, not income:

$90,000 per household seems like a really low cut-off for upper middle, personally. I’d say at least $250K for a household to be upper-middle.

Very interesting quote, BrainGlutton. To me, a social definition of “middle class” would be much more interesting than an economical one. After all, the main reason to divide people into categories at all is if it says anything about how they can be expected to act or what they can be expected to think.

Middle is as middle does, not as middle earns, right?

I agree. To be just plain middle class, I’d say $150,000 is the minimum.

Of some interest: The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Class, by the late Benjamin DeMott.

And Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, by Barbara Ehrenreich.

2009 Household quintiles are: 20,453 38,550 61,801 100,000 180,001

http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/data/historical/inequality/index.html table H1

One problem with the quintile definition would be that the relative sizes of the various classes would always amount to the same percentage, right? 20 percent each. Thus, it wouldn’t be possible to say anything about changes in income structure, although you could easily place a person in the right bracket, to the extent their taxable income really reflects their actual purchasing power.

No way is $100,000 upper middle in Northern Virginia.

I guess I always think of “Able to own and mainain a single family home” as the basic entry point of middle class. By that definition a Lower middle Class person might choose a townhouse or condo instead, if they were smart enough to prefer a high disposable income ratio. But if in a given area $100,000 per year doesn’t begin to allow for home ownership, I’d argue that’s not middle class in that area. I suppose we still have to except NY, LA and SF, and substitute 3 BR residence for single family home in those instances.

Likewise, able to own and maintain a 4,000 sq ft home would put you in the upper middle class, to my way of thinking. Again not that you’d necessarily choose to do so, just that you could, in your area.

Rich is when you can buy any home you want, without taking a loan.

HOORAY!! I’M RICH BITCH!! Now if you’ll excuse me I have to take a shit in my solid gold toilet.
The “Middle Class” basically refers to “most Americans”. Pretty much every American who isn’t welfare destitute homeless or flying a personal Gulfstream jet around the world self-identifies as “Middle Class”. It’s become such an overused term by politicians to be almost meaningless.

From a cultural perspective, if I were to describe a typical middle class family, they would be as follows:
2.4 kids
Household income of around $40-70k, adjusted for location.
College educated (but not typically Harvard or anything like that)
Nondescript job working in an office somewhere
Risk adverse
Always making just enough money to get by, with a few extra comforts thrown in.
Basically, just sort of normal, every day people.

Another is the long tail. There is a huge difference between a household making $190k and one making $1.9M - and a huge difference between that one and the one making $19M.

If we talk about what is above “middle class” we talk about people who are “rich” or “wealthy.” Someone making $190k a year and living in San Francisco with two kids can afford very little of the trappings of wealth.

Which gets to another thing - national averages do very little to talk about circumstances. $50k in some parts of the U.S. for someone with no kids can be a lot of money. Someone living in a high cost of living area with a large household - not much at all.

And to get at something similar to your point - you can place an individual in a bracket, but you can’t see that individual household move through brackets in time. Someone who lives a “middle class” life might graduate from college and make $40k. They might get married and have a household income of $80k. The both work for a few years and eventually their household income is $120k. The second child arrives and one decides to stay home and their income drops to $70k. Kids are in school and the non-working spouse reenters the workforce - the working spouse has had a few years of career growth, but the non-working spouse starts up again at the same income, and they make $125k. They get divorced, the stay at home spouse is penalized in the job market for a spotty resume, and household income is back down near $50k. Retirement drops income again. They might, if they are lucky and talented and both work - with relatively “ordinary” jobs, spend some time in that “upper 5% rich people bracket.” But if you spend four years of your life there when your kids are in high school and you are saving for college, then never see that income bracket again - is that significant enough to change your class? And that example is a pretty stable “I spend my life working for the man.” If you are a low level executive you might make $200k a year, and spend a year out of every five years unemployed. If you own your own business, you can go from riches to bankruptcy in a blink.

If we take home ownership as an indicator of being middle class, 67.4% are, and that number has only increased by five percent over the last fifty years (it went up dramatically after WWII). However, equity rates have fallen steadily for a long time and are now less than 50%. The US Census Bureau has some interesting historical facts.

Spain, a country that lags far behind the US in economic terms, has a home ownership rate of 85%. I’m thinking that home ownership, while a useful indicator, may not be the whole story.

That’s because you’re rich.

Seriously. Six figures is rich to me, everyone I know, and everyone they know.

And don’t tell me about location. If you can afford to live in Manhattan or San Fran at all, you’re rich.

But that’s just my opinion. I agree that everyone except a very few homeless people and multi-millionaires self-identify as middle class. That just goes to show you what a meaningless phrase it really is.

I think it goes to show you what a meaningful phrase it is to most people, since it’s one they so readily self identify with. Are you ‘middle class’ DrCube?

‘Rich’ now…THAT is a pretty meaningless phrase, especially since it’s generally not one that people self identify with, but instead it’s a label applied from one person to another, usually without a lot of understanding by the person applying it to the details of the situation of the person it’s being applied too.