What is Middle Class?


We keep hearing pundits lamenting how the economy is hurting the “middle class”.  But how often do we stop and think what exactly does “middle class” mean?  Do you define it by type of job?  Lifestyle?  Income?  Or maybe the Supreme Court’s obscenity test (I know it when I see it)?

Maybe we look at lifestyle.  The traditional middle class lifestyle involves a house in the suburbs, two cars in the garage, a nice vacation every year, etc.  One problem, though: the mortgage crisis that we’re still recovering from was was in part because people were defaulting on mortgages they couldn’t afford; i.e. trying to live the middle class lifestyle on too little money.

What if we look at jobs people have?  I don’t think I even want to start going there.  I’m not going to speculate on what should be considered a “middle-“, “upper-” or “lower-class” job.  There are jobs involving a lot of muscle and sweat that pay well and others that don’t.  Same with the “white-collar” jobs.  Dividing jobs into “upper” and “lower” only implies that some are more important than others.

What about income levels?  Is there any clear indication there?  In 2008 the Pew Research Center published a study where 53% of all American adults surveyed said they were “middle class”.  Of the people surveyed 4 in 10 with incomes under $20,000 said they were middle class along with one-third of those making over $150,000.  Does either group really think the other is also middle class?

Since politicians are always talking about “middle class tax cuts” and “middle class values” they must have an idea.  John Edwards in the 2004 presidential primary campaign talked about “two Americas” which he called “middle-class America” and “narrow-interest America”.  But doesn’t “middle” imply something on both sides?  A “middle class tax cut” in 2003 benefited everyone making over $28000.  In the 2008 primaries Hillary Clinton promised not to save Social Security on the backs of the “middle class”.  This was in response to a proposal to remove the limit on earnings subject to the Social Security tax that now stands at $106,800 (that is somewhere around the 75th percentile for household incomes).  Rudy Giuliani’s proposal to help the “middle class” was to get rid of the “Death Tax”.  The estate tax currently affects estates valued at over $3.5 million–according to the IRS website this will exempt 98% of Americans from it.  In 1988 the top tax bracket was for incomes over $29,750.  Where was the middle class then?  Doesn’t look like the politicians have any clue what “middle class” really is–the target just moves depending on whose votes they are courting.

What are “middle class values” anyway?  I really have trouble figuring it out.  I thought I was middle class, but then again I never received any handbook for what I am supposed to value.  I value some different things than a lot of other people who also appear to me to possibly be middle class.  I have had spirited discussions with various people on economics, politics, religion.  Which of us holds the middle class “values”?  I have some traditional middle class characteristics (I own a home, my wife holds a “professional” job) but not others (I do not have a college degree).  Do I have to have a certain percentage to be considered middle class?  And if I don’t, does that make me lower class?  What does it take to be upper class?

Of course the biggest questions I have to ask are: Should I really care? and Does it really matter?  I have decided not to care.  “Middle Class” is just another label to separate us and pit us against each other.


2 Responses to “What is Middle Class?”

  1. 1 Bruce

    The number that stands out in my mind is the median household income — last time I checked around $43,500. Since it is “median” it is the middle, but as you correctly point out there are a lot of other components, for instance purchasing power. Food and housing costs are dramatically different in different parts of the country, e.g. that home with a two-car garage costs a lot more in California than Montana.

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