How do YOU define “middle class”?

Today, I went over to AARP’s local office to participate in a discussion about the future of the Social Security system. More about that later.

I just wanted to focus on one thing we didn’t really talk about.

Before our local group started interacting, we watched a video feed being broadcast to groups like ours at AARP affiliates across the country, which featured two experts who pretty much represented the expected “liberal” and “conservative” sides of the issue. They fielded questions from groups like our across the country.

At one point, they were asked to give their definition of “middle class.” Neither of them did, in simple terms, although both were eager to assert that their respective plans would benefit said class.

I don’t blame them. Middle class is a state of mind to a great extent, and as one of the experts noted, it’s hard to find any American who does not think he is middle class, however low or high his income. And of course, assets other than income play into any assessment of economic class.

But… in order to kick off a discussion, I’m just going to pick a couple of numbers and throw them out, and let y’all tell me how wrong I am and why.

I hereby proclaim that one is “middle class” if one’s household income is between:




I’m sure lots of people who make less than 50k will assert they are card-carrying members of the gray hordes of suburbia, but we have to make room for the underclass and working class somewhere, and I’m just going to say that working class ends and middle class starts at 50k. Perhaps higher. And with today’s prices, that pretty much means you are just hanging on to your bourgeois status by your fingernails.

Plenty of arguments could be offered for raising the upper limit as well. For instance, is a person who makes 100k still middle class? I’d say yes. So if a couple each make 100k, would they not be a middle-class couple making a household income of 200k? Sure, you could say that, but for the purposes of this discussion, you have to draw the line somewhere, and I’m drawing it at 150k.

Does that mean I think you’re “rich” if you make more than that? No. I think there’s a broad territory between middle class and “rich.” A place where people are comfortable, but they’d better not kick back, or they could still lose it all.

Of course, all of this is fuzzy. You could have $50 million in assets, but just be making $100k — or even $10k, or not a thin dime– in additional wealth per year, and you’d still be rich.

But given the obvious shortcomings of any definition of class based purely on income, what do you think?

52 thoughts on “How do YOU define “middle class”?

  1. Brad

    As I put the photo of the Cleavers up there, I thought, “Does my definition fit them?” I think so.

    Of course, you have to adjust for inflation. In order to be making an amount equal to $50,000 in buying power in 2012, you only had to make $6,296.90 in 1958. Ward looks to me like he’s good for that, but of course, looks can deceive.

  2. Mark Stewart

    $150k might seem like a decent amount in the South, but wouldn’t get one into a median-priced home in much of the country.

    We can’t forget how much we economically lag other places – and why.

  3. Brad

    Oh, absolutely, Mark.

    Let me narrow this down: How do you define “middle class” in South Carolina? Because I was definitely thinking of it from that perspective…

  4. Steven Davis II

    Do you own your home or do you have a mortgage? For most people without a mortgage you can deduct $15,000 – $25,000 off their gross income.

  5. Steven Davis II

    $50,000 is equal to two adults in the household each making $13/hr. Not even double minimum wage.

  6. Dennis

    One needs more information before making definitions. Are you talking about individual income or household income? Gross income or adjusted gross or taxable income?

    How many divisions are you thinking of? Even if you were just thinking of 3 groups (upper, middle, and lower), your definition doesn’t make sense. The median household income is about $50,000, so starting the “middle class” at the median has to be distorting. Doesn’t the “middle” have to extend in both directions from the median? And don’t we need more classifications, like “upper middle” and “lower middle”?

    And as Mark suggests, absolute numbers are useless without knowing the geographic region and its costs and taxes.

  7. Mark Stewart

    The problem is, to me, that the very idea of middle class (economically) denotes mobility – or at least its ever-present option.

    That’s even harder for any South Carolinian’s looking to move to 3/4’s of the other states. I find it hard, therefore to call $50,000 middle class. It may apply vs the Jones, but wouldn’t if desiring a move in pursuit of opportunity. We shouldn’t delude ourselves that we aren’t farther down the wealth curve than we really are. That’s just the facts.

  8. Brad

    Just to throw this in the mix — the poverty level for a family of four is $23,050.

    So below that is “poor.” I would say considerable above that, but let’s start with the official level. That puts my middle class minimum at just over 200 percent of poverty level. That would sort of put “working class” between $23,050 and $50k. (Although that’s a bit silly, too, since plenty of people are working and making less than poverty level, but it’s a rough way of looking at it.)

  9. Brad

    I’m beginning to think, from these early reactions, that $50k may be too low.

    Anyone disagree? And if so, where should the lower limit be set?

  10. Silence

    Brad, I think that most of our concept of “middle class” actually better describes “working class” and it’s not all a function of income. Someone in the middle class should own some income producing assets – rental property, a business, securities, that sort of thing. Not enough to stop working entirely, but at least enough to supplement one’s earned wages.

    If you are just a couple of paychecks away from broke, it doesn’t matter how much you earn, you aren’t middle class. I think it’s really more function of net worth and lifestyle than income, but if I must put an income on it: I’d say a household income between $100k & $200k. Anything lower is working class, anything higher is upper class.

  11. Juan Caruso

    Prior to April of this year, our President never mentioned “middle class” in a paragraph not proximal to one mentioning the word “union”. And, from his slanted, socialist perspective, that was precisely whom he was talking about -organized labor; not the educated, formerly empowered middle class. Check it out for yourselves.

    As desperation forced POTUS to be purposefully vague, howver, Obama has resorted lately to omitting the word ‘union’ in his endless references to middle class workers. Do not fool yourselves or allow one of the silliest questions Brad has ever posed to fool you. Obama has no intention of assisting the education ‘middle class’ save for union members, especially members of the most powerful union in the U.S., the ABA.

  12. Kathleen

    I’m waiting for your post on the AARP discussion. Their Social Security questionaires have irritated me so much I barely skim anything they have to say.

  13. Brad

    I’m puzzled: “Do not fool yourselves or allow one of the silliest questions Brad has ever posed to fool you. Obama has no intention of…”

    I didn’t know we were discussing the president. Nor was I aware that I was trying to “fool” anyone with my silly question. I was just asking what other people mean when they use that term. And I’ve been interested in the response so far…

  14. Brad

    Kathleen, I’ll probably get to the AARP thing tomorrow. I have a couple of days worth of things like that to catch up on, such as Bob Inglis’ speech yesterday to the green business conference.

    Those kinds of posts take more time than one like this, and what with going to all these things, I haven’t had much of that. Time, I mean.

  15. Brad

    I’m particularly intrigued by Silence’s “English gentleman” definition of middle class — the idea that you have to be, at least to some extent, living off your rents to be middle class. That sounds more like “gentry” to me.

    It also reflects a world that is somewhat alien to me, since I’ve never been either an English country gentleman or a businessman. (I think I’d be quite comfortable as the former, less so as the latter.)

    My father is a retired career naval officer. My parents own their home and a beach house as well, and are quite comfortably well off. They do not rent the beach house, so no income-producing property of which I am aware.

    My father-in-law built a business and did fairly well for himself, and was able to leave some money to each of his four surviving children. I guess his stores would have qualified as income-producing properties.

    I’ve always been a salary man myself. I just want the checks. Personally, I never really cared about owning my own home, but we’re now about five years or so from having the mortgage paid off. The only income-producing “property” I have is this blog, if you include the small bits of income I get from selling ads on it in your definition. I would never be in the middle class on that alone; that’s for sure.

    So I don’t suppose I’m middle class, or ever have been, even when my income has been well within your window…

  16. Karen McLeod

    Hmm. I didn’t realize I was working class (although I’ve worked all my life). I own a small house (now mortgage free) and I have some money for retirement. I’ll settle for working class.

  17. Pat

    I was just thinking of the $100-$200k annually – in these inflated times. Many wonderful, decent, hard-working people think of themselves as middle class but an economics professor wouldn’t put them there based on income.

  18. Juan Caruso

    Merriam Webster

    “Definition of MIDDLE CLASS
    : a class occupying a position between the upper class and the lower class; especially : a fluid heterogeneous socioeconomic grouping composed principally of business and professional people, bureaucrats, and some farmers and skilled workers sharing common social characteristics and values

    Brad, we sense your definite claim not to be a member of the upper class. Likewise, you fall well outside of a lower class by virtue of your known membership in the Rotary (an international service club whose stated purpose is to bring together business and professional leaders).

    The notion of middle class folk as persons with incomes less than $250,000 is a tax contrivance at best. When you or, more likely, your heirs go to sell that home with the almost paid off mortgage, they may suddenly qualify as higher income earners under new tax regulations. (Bud: Please refrain from citing existing tax law with which as a preparer I am well-versed, and which subject to almost certain changes).

  19. Kathryn Fenner

    The middle class traditionally lay between the working class and the aristocracy. silence is right. I think it now describes white collar workers. Many professors at USC do not make $50K, and some factory workers can make more, but blue collar= working class and white collar = middle class. Do you wear your own clothes to work?

    It isn’t about economics. The area median income for a family of four is less than $50K, for Pete’s sake. I bet almost all of us are well into the upper middle class economically and don’t realize how wealthy we are! We watch folks on TV or the people we know who seem to have more and feel less well-off than we really are.

  20. Steve Gordy

    It depends. In day-to-day terms, a household with a dependable annual gross income of $ 50K may be middle class, while one whose income swings between $ 150K and $ 25K might not be. My parents and mother-in-law were upper class in terms of net worth, despite salaries that never put them much about the median (but of course they only achieved that status after many years of diligent work and saving).

  21. bud

    My definition of middle class is a a family of 4 that can make ends meet but has to be careful about every expenditure. They can afford an adequate home, a couple of modest vehicles and a few luxuries such as dinner out a couple of times a week. The main criteria for being middle class vs working class is this is doable without extreme sacrifice but they do have to think every time they spend money. I’d suggest $60-200k.

    Between $200-500k I’d have a separate category I’d call upper-middle class. These folks still have to be concerned with what expensive items cost and have to consider which luxury to have. They really don’t have to worry about small luxuries like eating out or to worry about the size of their TV. Yet they’re not at the point where they can completely ignore the cost of things.

    At $500k the upper class begins. These folks can have many luxuries and unless they are making a really lavish expenditure can pretty much buy what they want. They can have multiple houses, multiple expensive cars, expensive jewelry and other decadent things most of us only dream of owning. But at the lower end of this class they still may have to budget for the really expensive items and may have to “settle” for a small boat and drive only a modest sized BMW vs a Ferrari or something outlandish. Still, this income group can sleep easy at night not having to worry about where their next meal comes from.

    Above about $2 million/year we have the super rich. These folks can not only have it all they can have multiples of it all. They can easily afford multiple houses, the best cars, the most exotic jewelry and pretty much anything else they want. Even these folks can blow it all but with just a bit of restraint they are set. These folks really have no clue what the folks earning 1/20 of what they have to deal with.

  22. Brad

    I’m really surprised that Bud would set middle class income so very, very high. Half a mil? So people who make twice as much as the people Obama wants to raise taxes on are still middle class?

    Anyway, I keep thinking about Silence’s definition, and I both like it and don’t.

    I like it because it gives meaning to the word “working class.” If you make a living without working, or part of your living without working, you’re middle class, according to this position. That means that people who work for every dime they make, week after week, are actually working class, even if they make six figures.

    So basically, I like it on the basis of linguistic clarity.

    But on the other hand, Silence is saying that all members of the middle class are capitalists, and I’m not sure I buy into that. Maybe he’s right, but I guess I need to go back and study the differences between the petit and other forms of the bourgeoisie to wrap my mind around the distinctions.

    I think we’re all accustomed to the “capitalist” as the little Monopoly guy with the top hat (perhaps we’ve been that brainwashed by the marxists, or by the Parker Brothers) — even though most of us have investments in 401ks and the like. While I think middle class people can certainly be capitalists, and capitalists can be middle class, I’m not totally convinced they are the same thing.

  23. Barry

    I think between $50,000 and $150,000 is as good a range as any for middle class.

    In general – middle class to me hasn’t been a specific number. For me, middle class has typically meant

    1) Full time job making over minimum wage – in a job that offers some advancement opportunities of some type

    2) Has some form or retirement program and contributes to a 401k or similiar retirement program

    3) Has a home (or they choose to rent) that they are able to comfortably pay for in terms of their monthly payment.

  24. bud

    Perhaps the term “working class” is the one out of order. Perhaps lower-middle class for those $25-60k. (This is for a family of 4. A single guy or gal can live quite well with an income of $50k).

  25. Brad

    I think homeownership is key.

    In fact, here is another definition that I think works far better than any income test:

    (drum roll)

    The middle class consists of those who own their own home, but have a mortgage.

    Now don’t be quibbling with me about how you don’t own it if you have a mortgage; you know what I mean. I mean “own” as opposed to renting.

    And yes, if you’ve faithfully made your payments for 30 years (or if you’re like me, 15) and have paid off the mortgage, you’re still middle class. My point about the mortgage is that you had to buy your house that way; you weren’t rich enough to buy it outright.

    I think that probably comes closer than anything else to what most people mean when they say “middle class.”


  26. Brad

    I think Kathryn has a point, too, with her behavioral description (Do you wear your own clothes to work?)

    But I think mine more neatly encompasses the category.

  27. Kathryn Fenner

    In England, doctors and lawyers, who work, and grocers, are middle class. Laborers, who got dirty, are working class. Field hands, servants, etc., in the old days, and now all those folks in coveralls….

  28. bud

    I think the home ownership criteria is too restrictive. A renter can certainly be middle class. I know several folks who choose to rent to avoid all the headaches of ownership. This is an especially useful option for the young and old.

  29. Brad

    Now you’re going to make me wistful, Kathryn. I know, deep in my bones, that I was born to be an English country gentleman, living on the lands I inherited and having my man of business collect my rents for me. It just seems so right. I know I was made for that. (A local theatre group is about to do “Pride and Prejudice,” and my daughter wants me to be Mr. Bennett. My daughters think of me that way. Silly girls. Silliest girls in England, except for my Lizzie.)

    What I was NOT made for is going out and clawing to obtain a piece of investment property, and having to deal personally with all of the headaches that come with managing and worrying over said property. I can barely stand to own my own home. People think of renters as lower class, but personally, I like the idea of having a landlord to whom I can delegate the task of keeping the plumbing working…

  30. Kathryn Fenner

    And certainly many Manhattanites are well in the middle class in their rent-controlled apartments….

    Teachers are middle class, but many young ones have to rent. Anyone with a college degree is middle class.

  31. Mark Stewart

    In this day and age some people don’t have to wear any clothes to work. The one’s who work without going to work that is.

    Which makes them a lot like Brad’s wistful English upper class – even though they are still working.

  32. bud

    Mark, are you talking about strippers? I suppose birthday suits would constitute a work uniform of sorts.

  33. Norm Ivey

    I know it when I see it.

    Mark mentioned mobility, and I believe he was referring to physical mobility, but it would apply to economic mobility as well (as Barry suggested). Do you have the means to improve your economic position (or that of your children)? If so, you are middle class. Research shows that students from lower socioeconomic homes feel powerless to improve their performance in school. I think that belief would manifest itself in an adult who sees no way to improve their family’s economic situation. Therefore, lower class.

    If you want to use numbers, then poverty may be easier to define, and the lower end of middle class is anything that’s not poverty. The upper end is at whatever point you no longer have to perform a job to have sufficient income to live (outside of retirement). Lifestyle must be part of the definition. Given the same income, a family satisfied with less lives higher on the socioeconomic ladder than a family that is always wanting more.

    Home ownership or a mortgage is certainly a trait of many middle class folks, but I don’t think it’s enough to define middle class. The housing debacle proved that lots of home buyers were given mortgages they could not afford, and the crash in prices obliterated millions of dollars in wealth that those who were able to hold on to their homes will never see recovered. If the only way to avoid losing future income to your mortgage is to walk away from it, are you still middle class?

  34. Brad

    As Bud and Norm point out, homeownership may not define the middle class NOW. I’ve been reading about the growing trend among people who would in previous times bought home, but who are now sticking with renting, after what happened in 2007-08.

    But traditionally, I think it’s a pretty good benchmark.

    And Kathryn, you aren’t suggesting that Manhattanites are Americans, are you?

  35. Silence

    Brad – Home ownership is a decent proxy for social class, but no longer a perfect one, and I guess my statement about unearned income is slightly off as well, on further reflection – but we are on the same track. It’s really about having an accumulation of assets, or a certain level of net worth.

    So your father – who worked his entire life, owned a house, a beach house, and probably had a fairly substantial pension income would qualify. Likewise your father in law who was able to leave a substantial amount of wealth to his heirs.

    The old (pre-0% interest rate environment) rule of thumb was that a portfolio could throw off about 4% annually in interest/dividends/gains in perpetuity – no dipping into the principle – so someone with a 40k guaranteed annual pension basically has the equivalent of a million dollar accumulation of assets. That would put the TRUE middle class of today’s world needing either a 100k job or a $2.5M diversified portfolio, or some combination of the two. Granted that’s a lot of money.

    Most people like to think of themselves as middle class, but most of us – and I include my family in this bunch – are working class, and working for a living. Barring divorce, illness, or ridiculousness we will get to Middle Class in a decade or so. We have a substantial amount of assets: cash savings, own about 1/3 of our house, have about 2x our annual gross income in retirement savings, have some small amount of (non-retirement) investment income, but not enough to really supplement our wages.

    Stack up our liabilities, 100+k in grad school loans (MBA, PhD, JD), a substantial mortgage payment, a car note (at 0%) and a child to pay for – and we are a long way from a life of leisure.

    Anyways, if we owned our home outright and didn’t have the student loans, we’d be throwing off an extra 2k+ a month. That would bring us a lot closer to having a middle class pile of wealth.

    You are correct, owning a home (debt free) is traditionally a good benchmark of middle classness – because if you own it is is throwing off imputed rent.

    Put another way – the working class goes to Myrtle Beach or Pigeon Forge. The Middle Class go to Kiawah or Hawaii, and the wealthy own a beach house in SC but vacation in Mustique or Fiji.

  36. Steven Davis II

    “deep in my bones, that I was born to be an English country gentleman, living on the lands I inherited.”

    And your name wouldn’t be Douglas, Oliver Wendell Douglas.

    Do you even mow your own lawn?

  37. Steven Davis II

    “Anyone with a college degree is middle class.”

    Really? So those who graduate from Benedict College with a degree in African-American Studies and work as waitresses at IHOP are middle class?

  38. Steven Davis II

    Brad why don’t you sell your house and buy one of those Innovista condos? You can wake every morning to the sights and sounds of traffic on Assembly Street.

  39. Steven Davis II

    @Silence – “Put another way – the working class goes to Myrtle Beach or Pigeon Forge. The Middle Class go to Kiawah or Hawaii, and the wealthy own a beach house in SC but vacation in Mustique or Fiji.”

    Kathryn and Brad’s daughter went to Europe.

  40. Norm Ivey

    I’m solid middle class by Brad’s definition of home mortgageship and income range, and I also qualify by Kathryn’s criteria of college degree and being a teacher. I fit into Barry’s and Bud’s lifestyle standards of cars, dinners, and retirement funds. I may qualify by Mark’s mobility standard, but I fall short of (and may never reach) Silence’s net worth or vacationing standard. I was working class for some of my youth (construction, manufacturing, and fast food), but if asked, I would have asserted that I was middle class–I believed I would move up the socioeconomic ladder, just as the Benedict graduate working at IHOP does.

    Papa (my grandfather) was dirt poor, Daddy did better than Papa, and we have done better than Daddy or my wife’s father, albeit by virtue of two incomes. Our children have the potential do better than us. If we were discussing this 40 years ago, would we say that middle class meant supporting a family on a single income?

  41. bud

    Maybe if you could easily qualify for a $200k home mortgage but choose not to that would be sufficient to satisfy the home ownership requirement.

  42. Kathryn Fenner

    For the record, we aren’t vacationing. I’m tagging along on a work trip of my husband’s

  43. Steven Davis II

    “tagging along”… I bet you aren’t sitting in hallways while your husband is in meetings.

  44. Silence

    @SDII – The middle class go to Europe, so do the upper class. Where you go makes all the difference. Gstadt, The Channel Islands, Lichtenstein, Monaco – Those are some of my favorite places to go when I visit, depending on the season…

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