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).


  • Ken

    I find it maddening that the word “class” is used these days by Progressives and Conservatives alike. It presumes that the user accepts Marx’s language even though in many cases these days the person identifying themselves may not even know who Marx was. And it conjures up “class envy” and many readers of this site can testify to the problems envy creates. Why can’t we initiate a new euphemism like “American family” to replace the Marxian term? Something universal and without proletariat strings.

    Just imagine: “American family income fell today with the announcement that the Obama Administration’s plan….” or “American families suffered a new setback today when President Obama issued another executive decree without the authority…”

    See, that works.

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  • Joe DeVet

    Numbers I heard recently, which seemed “official” though I don’t know the source, gave an annual household income range of $39k – $115k for the middle class. A broad category, and the lifestyles of “middle-classers” at each end of the range would be quite different. However, given that most of us think of ourselves as “middle class”, it is at least appropriate that the range would be broad.
    I think the right definition would be one which comprises the second, third and fourth quintiles of annual income. The top quintile would be considered “upper class”, with the top 10% “rich”, top 5% “very rich” and top 1% “hatefully rich and probably going to hell for it.” The bottom quintile would be “lower class”, a bit more than half of which would be considered “poor”, falling below the official poverty line. (However, note how many “poor” people there are who are not only not hungry but are obese, and who are not only not deprived but have smart phones, TV, good housing, cars, and many other things which would make them considered “rich” by most of the world’s population.) Poverty just ain’t what it used to be!

  • The amounts earned can never reflect the true status of a person/familly.Poor or Rich is a relative term.One can be satisfied and content with what one earns.The question is what are the real needs?Needs can be met,greed cannot.A bit of values too would help here.Simply refuse to run the rat-race. You are in no way inferior if you donot own a Roll Royce or do not possess an iPhone5.

  • Roger McKinney

    Seems to me the original idea behind the middle class was Marx’s concept of the bourgeois. Ropke seems to identify them with small businesses. Anyone who works for a wage would not be middle class no matter how much money they make.

    Of course, Marx and Ropke would not include the aristocracy as part of the bourgeois, and we don’t have an aristocracy, so it’s hard to know where to cut off the upper limit of middle. Arbitrarily, we could cut off the middle class at owners of small businesses or family owned corporations.