What is 'Middle Class'?


I’ve been meaning to look this up for a long time: what is middle class or, more appropriately, what counts as middle income? My thought was that middle income should be plus or minus one standard deviation from the median. But I was just saved the trouble of doing the research, because I’m listening right now to an interview with sociologist Claude Fischer, co-author of Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years, economist David Henderson, editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics and Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project.

Henderson started it all off by saying that he defines middle income as the middle 60% of households (so, in other words, he calls the bottom 20% lower income and the upper 20% upper income). That seems like a good definition. So, before I reveal the numbers — answer quick — are you middle income?

Why do I ask? Two reasons:

  1. Politicians are always talking about helping the middle class, but never telling us who they actually mean by that.
  2. Most Americans, no matter what they’re income, like to think of themselves as middle income. When you poll people who are in the 95th percentile, they will typically say they are middle income. Of course, if they score in the 95th percentile on, say, a grammar test, they will not tell you that they are middle of the pack on grammar issues. But with income, it’s different.

So then, here it is: you are middle income in America if your household income (so not your personal salary) is between $20,000 and $97,000.
Of course, there are a lot of variables. Where you live makes a big difference. California median household income is $70,000 for a family of four.

Anyway, an interesting hour on the idea of Middle Class on Forum on KQED. In theory, starting tomorrow that broadcast should be available in the Forum Archives for February 18, 2008.

I have to say that I find the numbers a bit surprising because if memory serves, the bottom end hasn’t risen much in the last 15 years, whereas the top end has. I remember back in the late 1980s when $85,000 put you in the top 1% and 114,000 dollars put you in the top 1%. I remember this, by the way, because of a multi-day argument with a doctor friend of mine who insisted that he couldn’t possibly be in the top 1%.

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