Definition of middle class is muddled

by Grace

Since I constantly hear about how the middle class is being shut out in its ability to afford college, I am intrigued by this discussion of what exactly constitutes ‘middle class’.

Despite the incessant political lip service paid to the middle class, there is no official American government definition of the group. The middle class has been intensively studied but no political consensus exists over how it was created or how to strengthen it

So of course the federal government decided to create a task force to study the middle class.

Within weeks of taking office, the Obama administration’s launched its own effort to help the group. Chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, the “Middle Class Task Force” was launched in January 2009 and includes the secretaries of labor, health and human services, education and commerce.

The government says middle class is about “aspirations”.

The closest the task force came to defining the middle class was a January 2010 report “Middle Class in America.” The study never gives an exact income level that is “middle class.” Instead, echoing academic studies on the subject, the document concludes that “middle class families are defined more by their aspirations than their income.”

Economists use actual income to define middle class.

In academia, various definitions of the middle class are used. Economists generally use income as the determinant. Using census data, they break the American middle class into quintiles — groups of twenty percent — and declare the middle sixty percent of Americans the middle class. As I said in an earlier column, this is the definition I use. Based on 2010 census data, the middle class would be the sixty percent of Americans with household incomes from $28,636 to $79,040 a year.

Sociologists look at how we self-identity.

Other researchers, such as sociologists, have tried to define Americans as middle class by how they self-identify. One of the odd – and I think positive – things about Americans is that they over-identify as middle class. The practice embodies an American ideal that the majority of society’s members, not the few, should benefit.

The rest of us mainly just use our feelings.

Americans themselves give varying definitions of the middle class. In a 2008 Pew survey, one-third of Americans who earned more than $150,000 a year — 11 percent of Americans overall — identified themselves as middle class. In the same survey, 40 percent of Americans who earned less than $20,000 — 25 percent — considered themselves middle class as well. The median family income in the United States was $49,445 in 2010, a lower number than many Americans think.

Why we want to be middle class

But whatever its exact size, the middle class is usually considered more deserving – and more threatened – than those at the extremes.

This helps explain why we label the offering of financial aid to families with incomes up to $200,000, a policy of some Ivy League schools and other elite colleges, as help for the “middle class”.  It feels good to do so, and since the definition is muddled, it’s hard to challenge it.

Here’s a handy calculator from the Wall Street Journal.  What Percent Are You?


3 Comments to “Definition of middle class is muddled”

  1. So true, but I know some people argue that cost of living should NOT be taken into account because everyone makes a “choice” where to live. Even as someone living in one of the most high-cost parts of the country, I see both sides of the argument.


  2. I could choose to live someplace in South Texas where an equivalent household income would be a fraction of what we have now, thereby increasing chances for financial aid. I believe we choose our social/economic class, at least to some degree.


  3. Yeah, the financial aid process is definitely inconsistent in the way it assesses need. It creates winners and losers in unfair ways.


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