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What is considered middle class?

What is considered middle class?

Source: Giphy.com When you hear the term "middle class", what do you think of? If you're like most p

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Source: Giphy.com

When you hear the term “middle class”, what do you think of? If you’re like most people, you’re probably thinking of someone who has a comfortable middle income – not too rich, but not too poor.

But what does “middle class” really mean? And how has the definition changed over time?

What is considered middle class?

Believe it or not, there is no universal definition of the middle class.

  • Economists tend to look exclusively at household income or wealth.
  • Sociologists look at education and credentials.
  • Philosophers tend to prioritize culture and values.

In fact, whether you are in the middle class or not probably depends on a combination of your income, experiences and cultural values. But before we dive into that, let’s first cover a few technical definitions.

Pew Research’s definition of middle class

Pew Research defines the middle class as those who earn two-thirds to double their median household income.

The median US household income is currently $ 67,521, based on recent census data. So, by Pew’s definition, the middle class is anyone who earns between $ 45,014 and $ 135,042.

Wondering if you’re in the middle class? Use Pew’s income calculator to find out.

Brookings Institute definition

The Brookings Institute defines the middle class as people who make up the middle 60% of households (or middle three quintiles) on the income ladder. This means that you will be considered middle class if your household income falls between $ 39,479 and $ 109,732, based on recent Census data.

This series is a bit tighter than Pew Research’s series, but it still leaves a fairly large gap in who is considered middle class or not.

Urban Institute definition

The Urban Institute defines a middle-class family as those whose annual household income is 150% to 500% above the poverty line. The poverty line for a three-person household in 2020 was $ 21,720. So middle class would be those who earn between $ 32,580 and $ 108,600.

Summary at a glance

This table gives an overview of how all three definitions of middle class compare:

Who is considered “middle class” in America?
Pew Research’s definition$ 45,014 to $ 135,042
Brookings Institution’s definition$ 39,479 to $ 109,732
Urban Institute’s definition$ 32,580 to $ 108,600

As you can see, all three definitions give a fairly large gap between the lower and upper limits of the middle class.

And it’s safe to say that someone who earns $ 30k or $ 45ka a year probably does not agree that their financial struggle is the same as someone who makes more than three times as much money as they do.

Read more: Wealth is not equal to income – how to feel richer than someone who earns twice as much

So how else can we define middle class? It turns out that it may have more to do with your money values ​​and goals than it does with your actual income. Let’s see.

Characteristics of middle-class families

Source: Giphy.com

Apart from these technical definitions, many scholars believe that middle class families have several lifestyle goals in common that bind them all together.

For example, many middle-class families are striving for the American dream. They want to:

  • Owns a house or vehicle.
  • Pay their bills on time.
  • Have enough money to save for retirement.
  • Send their children to college – even if it means taking out loans to help.
  • Have enough money to afford an occasional vacation.

Based on these characteristics, the middle class can be more defined as a state of existence rather than a household income. And if you too have aspirations to achieve the American Dream, you could very well be in the middle class.

Read more: Why so many people are homeless and how can you avoid the same fate

How middle class differs by location

Source: Giphy.com

Geography also plays a big role in how the middle class is defined. After all, cost of living can go a long way in determining how “rich” or “poor” you feel on any given salary.

In some parts of the country, $ 40,000 goes much further than in others. In cheap cities like Fort Wayne, Indiana or Topeka, Kansas, you can easily survive (or thrive) on that income.

But in expensive places like San Francisco or New York, it may not even be enough to cover rent. (A studio apartment in New York costs an average of $ 3,638 – that’s more than $ 40,000 a year!)

How the middle class has changed over the decades

Source: Giphy.com

Income is often used as a way of measuring class, and in that sense the middle class today is very different from what it was even a few decades ago.

In 1970, the median middle-income family earned about $ 60,000 (in constant 2020 dollars), according to Pew Research. Today, that number has increased to $ 90,000.

But even as income increased, so did the cost of living.

  • Healthcare is more expensive.
  • College tuition rates have exploded.
  • Groceries and the cost of goods increased.
  • Pensions are gone.

All of these factors mean that the middle class is struggling in many ways more than ever before.

Read more: The Cost of Having Health Insurance – Is It Worth It?

Why the middle class is shrinking

The middle class has declined over the past few years due to a number of factors, including globalization, technological change, and the rising cost of living. And of course, all of these factors were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Globalization: Jobs that were once middle-class jobs, such as manufacturing, have been outsourced to other countries where labor is cheaper.
  • Technology: Jobs that were once considered middle-class, such as data import, agriculture and accounting, can now be performed by fewer people thanks to automation and computers.
  • Rising cost of living: The costs of housing, health care and education have all risen faster than people’s incomes. This has made it difficult for middle-class families to keep up with inflation and the rising cost of living.

Read more: Inflation is on the rise – here are 7 tips to protect your finances from it


There are several middle class technical definitions, but whether you fall into this economic hierarchy may have more to do with your location, dreams, and goals rather than how much income you make.

Exhibition image: trekandshoot / Shutterstock.com

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