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Illustration for article titled What is Middle Class? (and whats not)

There are varying definitions about what middle class is. They are discussing this here. I've always associated it with education +income—>college education plus mid-quintiles in annual income. I know when I've had talks on class (because I've done and attended some talks about having a working class background and being in academia), the differences between middle and working classes were not merely economic. Plumbers might be considered working class and have a much higher income than graphic designers, social workers and all sorts of people who are considered middle class because of educational status and cultural values. So for instance, when I and other working class students went to college—I know there was a really big cultural difference that doesn't necessarily get articulated by just talking about quintiles of income.


Here are a few definitions:

A note on the term "middle class": There is no single, universal definition so we turned to economic analyst Robert Reich – who spoke to us this week – for some direction. Reich suggested defining middle class as those with income levels 50 percent above and below the median income. Median is a term that means the "middle of the middle." Median earnings are a key indicator of how the middle class is doing.


Here they mention cultural values:

As broad as these politicians' definition might be for middle class, historically Americans of all income levels have predominantly self-identified with that category. In a survey conducted in July byPew Research Center, about half of American adults surveyed said they were middle class, including almost half of those earning more than $100,000.

Those self-identifications are changing, though.

Pew also found that the share of people who self-identify as lower class or lower middle class has risen substantially, from 25 percent in 2008 to 32 percent in 2012. The greatest growth is among younger Americans. Since people seem to define middle class by culture and values as much by income, it will be interesting to see if this growing self-identification with lower class sticks in the years ahead as this younger cohort ages, and if it does, what kind of pressure (if any) that might put on politicians to redefine their stated socioeconomic class categories. As I mentioned in an earlier post, even as the median American family has gotten poorer, Americans overall have lowered their expectations for what the rich should pay in taxes.


Here, when it came up around the election:

There are lots of ways to measure household income, like market income before taxes or total income after taxes and government transfers, and so on. It doesn't make much of a difference. If you make $200,000, you are, essentially, the 5%. A $200,000 salary will go a lot further in North Dakota than in Manhattan, of course, but it doesn't change the overall distribution.

You could argue that Romney's middle class definition shows that he doesn't understand average people in a country where the typical household earnsabout $50,000. Or you could argue that Romney's broad definition of middle income is harmless because it just means his promises to the "middle class" extend up to $250,000. I'm not arguing either point. But to call $200,000 "middle income" begs the question: Middle of what, exactly?


So what say you, commentariat?

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