Acton Institute Powerblog

Who Counts as Middle Class?

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As the Presidential debates draw near, there is one question that tops my wish list of questions that should (but won’t be) asked of the candidates: What income range constitutes “middle class”?

This undefined group of citizens seems to be a favorite of politicians on both ends of the political spectrum. Reagan and Bush cut their taxes. Clinton too. And Obama promised not to raise their taxes. But who are these people? Ask the janitor sweeping your company’s floors and he’ll likely tell you he’s in ‘middle class.’ Query the vice-president of marketing and he will give you the same answer. The single girls down in accounts payable and the married attorneys in the legal department will give the same response. In the land of equal opportunity, it appears, we’re almost all middle class.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center confirms that almost half (49%) of adult Americans say they are in the middle class. But as Catherine Rampell notes, there is a wide variety of responses about what a family of four needed to earn to maintain a “middle-class lifestyle.”

Self-proclaimed members of the middle class who had family incomes below $30,000, for example, said that a family needed to earn at least $40,000 to lead a middle-class lifestyle — even though that would disqualify themselves. Likewise, “middle-class” respondents who earned from $30,000 to $49,999 said the lifestyle required an annual income of at least $60,000.

People with family incomes of $50,000 to $99,999 gave a median response of $75,000 — so, pretty close to what they currently make.

The richest people to call themselves middle class, those earning at least $100,000, dictated that a middle-class lifestyle requires bringing in at least $100,000 a year.

With Americans who earn less than $30,000 and more than $100,000 all thinking they are “middle class,” it’s probably smart that politicians play on this terminological confusion.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).