Defining "middle class" (continued)

Who is middle class? Data on family earnings only tells a small part of the story. If you ask people where they fit it terms of class, wealth is relatively unimportant in self-identity.

A seminal study done by the Pew Research Center in 2008 of the middle class in the United Stated reveals several groups inside the middle class. America’s Four Middle Classes: The Top, The Anxious, The Satisfied, and The Struggling middle. 

U.S. families grasp for a self-definition as middle class almost regardless of their circumstances. Many of the high earning men want to be seen as middle class, as do struggling single-parent moms. 

Pew starts with an earnings-based assumption: A family of three is middle class whose income is between 75% and 150% of the median family income, or roughly $45,000 to $90,000 per year in 2007 is in the middle. (That number has declined from 40% of families in 1970 to 35% in 2007.)  

Note the 35% whose incomes fit in the middle. When asked where they fit, 53% of Pew’s respondents defined themselves in the center of the middle class. They have incomes ranging from under $20,000 to more than $100,000. 

Numbers don’t tell the story well. For instance, how would my dad be defined—a medical school graduate with a family of four doing his internship and earning $25,000? Certainly not lower class. And what about the linemen I worked with at the electric company who worked every overtime hour they could take, earned over $100,000 and rarely saw their kids? Are they upper middle class? 

Pew uses the income numbers as a baseline, then asks the people they survey to define themselves. It turns out that several factors contribute to self-definition: accumulated wealth, level of education, home ownership, health status, married or single, parents or not. And location—urban, suburban or rural, geographic region, and proximity to others who are wealthy or poor—all play a part in self-definition.

Middle class priorities

Having wealth plays a small part in middle class values. Of higher importance are factors including:

  • Having free time
  • Having children
  • Successful career
  • Being married
  • Volunteer or charity work
  • Living a religious life

(See p. 53 in the report.) Having wealth is about one-third as important as any of the other priorities. Access to free time holds the highest value for middle class people. Does that speak to a society of overwork? Shorter vacation time than any other industrialized country? Pressure to produce at work? Of, simply a high level of employment among the middle class? 

A decade of standing still

Pew’s research also reveals that most of the middle class recognize that they have been treading water since about 1999. Statistics on earnings bear that out. The past decade is the first time since the 1930s that incomes have fallen. 

Over the long term people believe that their families are better off then their parents generation at the same point in their lives. Earnings statistics agree that family income has risen about 40% since 1969. However, as Elizabeth Warren revealed in her Berkeley speech (see Working and middle class economics elsewhere in this site), all the growth in earnings has come from women entering the workforce since 1970, men’s earnings when adjusted for inflation have dropped slightly since 1970. 

Pew Research Center’s studies of social trends shines light on changing circumstances of class in the United States, which can assist policy makers as well as citizens. How does this information help you to define yourself in relation to those around you? What comments do you want to share on middle class identify?

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