Meet me in the Middle: How Much Money Makes You Middle Class in the U.S.? | DCR Workforce Blog

Meet me in the Middle: How Much Money Makes You Middle Class in the U.S.?

Growing up, my family was considered upper middle class in our neighborhood. We lived in an average three bedroom, one-and-one-half bath home in a nice, average working class neighborhood. We had one car. We had one television – albeit it was color. And we had a couple of telephones, upstairs and main floor, but they ran off of one line. Count that: One! All for a family of seven: two adults and five kids (well, two kids had left the nest when I was growing up, but that car, tv and house phone still stretched over most of us until my brothers bought their own cars, tvs and phone lines). Life was pretty good!

In many reports, studies and articles, the meaning of “middle class” – and even the variations such as upper middle class and lower middle class – in the United States is very loosely categorized. The federal poverty level guidelines are defined, but that’s about it. So if you want to know if you’re considered “poor,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services, that data is available. After that, there are many ways to define it.

How many ways can you slice and dice it?

The reason for this is that the definition of “middle class” changes from state to state, based on who’s doing the defining and for what purpose. The variation is huge. Middle class income is not the sole criteria by which to judge middle classness! For instance, some reports are even starting to factor in how you feel about yourself in relation to your neighbor. What? Talk about keeping up with the Joneses! Here are a few more definitions:

  • One of the narrowest definitions limits it to those who are literally in the middle fifth of the nation’s income ladder.
  • A wider definition includes everyone but the poorest 20% and the wealthiest 20%, which leaves a whole lot of us congregating in the proverbial “middle.”
  • Some experts prefer to use “wealth” as opposed to income for the determining factor, defining middle class as the middle three-fifths of the wealth spectrum.
  • Another method defines the middle class by consumption or how much is spent.
  • Still others define middle class by aspirations and achievements, such as home ownership, health and retirement security, car ownership or ability to take family vacations.
  • And others yet use demographic characteristics such as age, education and race to determine middle class.

What is considered middle class? Easy question; hard answer!

It’s no wonder that the seemingly innocent question of “How much money makes you middle class in the U.S.?” is unbelievably difficult to answer. What is considered middle class?

A Pew Charitable Trust analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data found that the middle class has shrunk in every state between 2000 and 2013. (Hover over your state for data.)

In 2013, the median income of all U.S. households was $51,939, down from $55,562 in 2000. Here are a few specific examples:

  • Arkansas: Share of households considered middle class was 45.7% in 2013, down from 48.9% in 2000; median income was $40,511 in 2013, down from $44,347 in 2000.
  • New York: Share of households considered middle class was 42.3% in 2013, down from 45.1% in 2000; median income was $57,369 in 2013, down from $59,796 in 2000.
  • Florida: Share of households considered middle class was 45.9% in 2013, down from 48.8% in 2000; median income was $46,036 in 2013, down from $53,493 in 2000.

Going back to the attitude about wealth

Let’s say you live in an average state with an average income of $50,000. Now compare that to the former University of Michigan student, Jesse Klein, who emphatically states in an opinion piece entitled “Relative Wealth”:

“My family’s household income is $250,000 a year, but I promise you I am still middle class. It has one story, doesn’t have a pool or its own movie theater. It is a modest three-bedroom, two-bath.”

Um, no. Many commented they thought this was a satire piece similar to The Onion. Even the fact that your family can afford a home, let alone a lifestyle, in the heart of Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, California, sets you aside from the truly middle class.

If you take a look at the whole picture, whether or not you’re middle class in the U.S. depends on a wide variety of economic and experience factors including income, where you live (cost of living), disposable income and even the federal poverty level – no matter what the economists or people like Jesse Klein say.

Here’s a nifty income calculator from Pew Research Center that calculates where you fall in two steps. First, by pre-tax income, U.S. state, nearest major metropolitan area and number of people in your household. (Once you click calculate, you have to look to the side for your results.) The graph shows percentage of adults in each income tier of upper-middle class, middle class or lower-middle class.

Second, once that is determined, you can then compare yourself to others in the U.S. with similar demographics such as education, age, race/ethnicity and marital status (you must select one from each demographic or it won’t calculate.) A synopsis and pie chart appear underneath the calculate button.

What do YOU say? Do you consider yourself middle class in the U.S.? Why or why not?

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.

One response to “Meet me in the Middle: How Much Money Makes You Middle Class in the U.S.?”

  1. Lalita Vempati says:

    Excellent piece! Many of these definitions are truly decided by the interpreter’s view of life. I am reminded of the rich man’s son in the story which goes like this:

    Wealthy father takes his son to the country with the express purpose of showing him how poor people live. They spend a couple of days and nights on a poor family’s farm. On their return, the father asked his son, ‘Did you see how poor people live?’

    The son answered: ‘I saw that we have one dog and they had four. We have a pool that reaches to the middle of our garden and they have a creek that has no end. We have imported lanterns in our garden and they have the stars at night. Our patio reaches to the front yard and they have the whole horizon. We have a small piece of land to live on and they have fields that go beyond our sight. We buy our food, but they grow theirs. We have walls around our property to protect us, they have friends to protect them.’

    The father was speechless.
    Then his son added, ‘Thanks Dad for showing me how poor we are.’

Shelley has been a published writer since 6th grade. She loves the creative process, and writes so much that it looks like her keyboard is on fire. She’s developed copy for Fortune 500 companies and won numerous advertising and marketing awards.