A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Defining the ‘Middle Class’


Q: Is there a standard, accepted definition of what constitutes the "middle class"?

A: No, there isn’t. "Middle class" means different things to different people – and politicians.

FULL QUESTION

Is there a standard, accepted definition of what constitutes the "middle class"? Politicians are fond of talking about how the middle class will be affected by policies and laws, but rarely do they define who is actually part of that group.

FULL ANSWER

There is no standard definition, and in fact, an overwhelming majority of Americans say they are "middle class" or "upper-middle class" or "working class" in public opinion polls. Hardly anybody considers themselves "lower class" or "upper class" in America.

It’s possible to come up with a definition of what constitutes "middle income," but it will depend on how large a slice of the middle one prefers. If we look at U.S. Census Bureau statistics, which divide household income into quintiles, we could say that the "middle" quintile, or 20 percent, might be the "middle" class. In 2006, the average income for households in that middle group was $48,561 and the upper limit was $60,224. But we could just as reasonably use another Census figure, median family income. In 2006, the median – or "middle" – income for a family of four was $70,354. Half of all four-person families made more; half made less.

Journalist Chris Baker examined the ambiguous meaning of the term "middle class" in a 2003 Washington Times story. He, too, found no generally accepted definition, but he did get this broad one from Jared Bernstein, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute: "There are working families who can pay their bills, but they have to really think about such minimal expenditures as picking up a pizza after work, going to the movies, making a long-distance telephone call. They may have some investments, but they depend on each paycheck for their well-being."

But others could have different definitions. Baker interviewed a man who earned about $100,000 a year and a woman who made $35,000, both of whom said they were middle class.

Public opinion polls show how slippery the term can be. An Oct. 2007 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health and National Public Radio asked 1,527 adults what income level makes a family of four middle class. About 60 percent said a family earning $50,000 or $60,000 fit that description. But 42 percent answered an income of $40,000 and 48 percent said $80,000 were both middle class.

Other polls suggest that 90 percent or more of Americans consider themselves to be "middle class" or "upper-middle class" or "working class." An April 2007 poll by CBS News found that of 994 adults surveyed only 2 percent said they were "upper class," and 7 percent said they were "lower class." In another poll, taken by Gallup/USA Today in May 2006, 1 percent said they were "upper class," and 6 percent said they were "lower class." Interestingly, since 12.3 percent of Americans were living below the official federal poverty level in 2006, these poll findings suggest many who are officially poor still consider themselves to be "middle class" or "working class."

So what do politicians mean when they say "the middle class"? Good question. Each politician may be talking about a different group of Americans, but the message many voters hear is that the politician is talking about them.

For example, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards calls for "tax breaks to honor and strengthen three pillars of America’s middle class: savings, work, and families." One of his proposals is to expand a tax credit to give dollar-for-dollar matches on savings up to $500 a year. Some version of that credit would be available to families earning up to $75,000.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has proposed eliminating "taxes on dividends, capital gains, and interest on middle class families." He defines "middle class" as anyone with an adjusted gross income of under $200,000 – and acknowledges that such a proposal would affect "over 95 percent of American families."
 
 – Lori Robertson

Sources

U.S. Census Bureau. 2006 American Community Survey. Income tables, accessed 23 Jan. 2008.

NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health. Survey: Public Views on SCHIP Reauthorization. Survey conducted Oct. 8-13, 2007. 17 Oct. 2007.

Survey by CBS News, April 9-April 12, 2007. Retrieved 23 Jan. 2008 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

Survey by USA Today and Gallup Organization, May 5-May 7, 2006. Retrieved 23 Jan. 2008 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

Baker, Chris. "What is middle class?; Income isn’t necessarily sole measure." The Washington Times, 30 Nov. 2003.