What is middle class?

In her comment on yesterday’s post, Jody wrote "it’s worth asking what we mean by a middle-class life."  She points out that, due to the declining cost of manufactured goods, even people with relatively low incomes can have many of the material markers of a middle-class life — televisions, cars, etc.  This is a fair point — when measured by stuff, even poor Americans are incredibly well-off by both international and historical standards.

The statistical definition of "middle class" as the middle quintile of the income distribution makes the question of "is the middle class diminishing?" meaningless since, by definition, 20 percent of the population is going to be in that quintile.  And most Americans continue to describe themselves as middle class, even when their income seems to suggest that they’re outside that range.

What do I have in mind, then?  It combines a bunch of economic and psychological variables.  Being middle-class doesn’t necessarily mean you own your own home, but it means that you can reasonably expect to do so at some point in your adult life.  (I think the rising cost of homeownership in big cities is one of the reasons that people whose income in the $80,000 and up range don’t think of themselves as upper class.)  It means that you can’t afford everything you want, but that there’s room in your budget for non-necessities — a vacation, cable TV, an occasional restaurant meal.  It means that something going wrong — a kid getting sick, a car breaking down — is a hassle, but not an immediate disaster.  It means paid vacation days, health insurance, and some plan for retirement that doesn’t involve working until you drop dead.  It means either employment security, or at least a decent chance of finding a comparable job if you get laid off.  It means decent schools for your kids, and an expectation that they’ll have at least as good a life as you do.

Is this what you mean by "middle class"? 

14 Responses to “What is middle class?”

  1. Fred Vincy Says:

    That’s an excellent definition.
    One thought I had is that in American parlance, “middle class” is used to distinguish people from “poor” and “rich”, not from “lower class” and “upper class”, terms which I think are rarely used because they suggest a class structure that Americans like to think doesn’t exist. “Middle class”, on the other hand, is used all the time, and actively embraced. Why? Perhaps because “middle class” is less a statement about what a person is than about what he or she is not — it is a denial of being rich or a denial of being poor.

  2. Decomposition Says:

    I think that’s just about exactly what I would mean by middle-class: comfortable.
    I have a point I want to add to yesterday’s discussion too, and it seems to fit here as well: the fundamental problem with proposing education as a solution to poverty or income inequality is that our whole economy requires poverty. Poverty and a certain level of unemployment are necessary for our economic system to function. INcome inequality can be reduced, perhaps, through insturments such as education or welfare or income/employment insurance; but in the end all you will have if you rely on education to eliminate poverty or unemployment is a much better educated group of poor and unemployed people. Not a bad thing, but not the goal.
    Capitalism could never work without the fear of unemployment, poverty and ensuing shame that motivates so many people to get up every morning and go to a job they hate that takes too much of their time and their lives away from them. If no one was afraid of being poor, then who would work 100 hour weeks, 60 hours of which is free overtime?

  3. landismom Says:

    I generally agree with your definition of “middle class” with one change. I think that at this point, something like 98% of American homes have at least one tv. It doesn’t seem to me like that’s a substantial class marker anymore. I think the technology that marks ‘middle class’ more for me now is having a computer with internet access. You might be able to argue that high-speed internet access is the new tv.

  4. jen Says:

    OK, this is going to sound horrible, but my markers for middle class are:
    * good teeth
    * being well-spoken (you can swear, but it must be grammatically appropriate; but minimal slang; no misuse of words)
    * an attitude that even if life is not fair, you have the right to expect fair treatment wherever possible
    I believe that last point is what Annette Lareau would call “a sense of entitlement”, a term I don’t necessarily agree with. If you’re born on third base and think you hit a triple, that sense of entitlement is not appropriate. If however you walk up to the plate convinced you’ll never get a hit no matter what you do so you may as well just use your time to wave to your friends, that lack of “entitlement” is unhealthy. We all deserve a fair shake in life, and it pains me to hear about and see those who are not in the middle class accepting poor treatment.

  5. bj Says:

    I don’t think middle class is the right word for this. Maybe we should borrow from one of the other comments and call it the “comfortable” class.
    Middle, implies middle to me, that there are people both worse and better off than you. If it were the contrast of “rich/poor”, then presumably the middle would be bigger than the middle, that is it would exclude people who were 2 standard deviations above the mean, or below (i.e. rich/poor) and keep every else (i.e. >97% of the people).
    Definiting it based on what people have seems like defining it on a the idea of a comfortable lifestyle, one that you can live without feeling that you have to strive for more in order to get things you feel you need.
    Everyone feels they need some things (food enough to not feel hungry the most obvious, a place to live). But, what else we feel we “need’ as opposed to want depends on a lot more, including the individual, and the social group in which we operate.
    I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot because we have just made the final step to enrolling our first child in private school. It’s a big decision for me because it means that we are taking away the most valuable contribution we could make to the public schools (our own kid). It raises issues of class, and long term plans for her future, and one of my main concerns has been how this will set her peer group for defining want and need.
    PS: Elizabeth — you must

  6. Stephen Says:

    Steven Pinker talks about this issue in his book The Blank Slate. He makes the point that the whole status thing is a zero sum game. So it doesn’t matter what you have, what matters is whether you have more or less stuff than your neighbors. Which then allows you to feel good or lousy about yourself.
    In our world this has arms race for stuff has escalated past the point of ridiculousness. Hopefully more and more people will wake up to the idea that they can’t define themselves in any significant way by their possesions or lifestyle.

  7. Parke Says:

    Jody’s comment rings true with me. In many ways, the vast majority of Americans are materially better off than we were a generation ago.
    Elizabeth’s response points out a couple opposing considerations. For example, we are richer in terms of the affordability of many things, but not housing. The cost of housing has risen along with our rising prosperity. After all, technology has lowered the cost of many things, but the number of single-family house lots in inner suburbs of New York or Washington or Boston can’t increase. If you define “middle-class” status by ownership of a large single family home in an inner suburb of these cities, you have set a standard that even a thriving and fair economy couldn’t achieve, and you are doomed to pessimism.
    Instead, if “middle class” Americans can accept pleasant apartments or small affordable single-family homes as their standard of housing, we can look forward with optimism to those feasible economic changes that would be required to give everybody a fair shake at a middle class life. There is no reason why we can’t all have such a thing.

  8. dave s Says:

    Why do I think I’m middle class, when my wife and I have more income than 95%? Stephen’s right, you calibrate by those around you, and in our neighborhood we don’t stand out by possessions. It’s also that we got little from our parents, we work for wages, we’d be knocked down if either of us left/lost our jobs before we were pensionable.
    We expect to be able to put our kids through college, but it’ll be a LOT better for the exchequer if they go to a Virginia state school than if they go to Princeton. We paid off our mortgage, but it took us fifteen years.
    ‘Have to work’, is part of it. Kids in public school. Push mower, which I push. Jen’s post is very good, on why you know you are not lower class. University Diaries has been blogging about the (presumably rapist, although let’s remember innocent til proven, but it sure looks odious) Duke lacross team and she writes about what she calls “‘thesdan” culture. Not being like those people is how I know I’m not upper, I guess.

  9. amy Says:

    hm…I really haven’t thought of those fixtures as middle-class since before my 1989 graduation. I graduated into Chainsaw Al’s rust-belt world, and for years was the only one in my college crowd to have her own apartment. (Only because I wasn’t allowed to move back home. I worked 60-80h/wk at minimum-wage and freelance jobs, and at one point beat out 500 applicants for a $16K fulltime professional job at Rodale Press.) I’ve had employer-paid health insurance for about 6 of the last 17 years. Vacations happen if someone else is paying, or if I know someone in the town where I’m going and can stay with them. I expect I’ll work till I can’t.
    I’m middle-class by virtue of education, ambition, and discipline; currently, thanks to my husband’s private disability insurance, we also live a middle-class life materially, on an income of about $50K. In normal American terms, this means house, yard, two 10-year-old cars, two ancient TVs, two cellphones, no worry about paying the heating bill every month or buying food, health insurance paid OOP, some savings. Materially, though, this is not a normal state for me, and I expect it to end with a bump. Which is a large part of why I live in this small university town. It’s as close to socialist as I’ve seen in this country, there’s a tertiary hospital down the street that must take charity cases, and I have a $52K condo I’ll own outright in the next few years. It’s on buslines and within walking distance to most school and work here. It’s a good place for writers and artists who don’t need exciting nightlife.
    I guess I think of the life you’re describing, Elizabeth, as a very high-overhead one, and not normal for most people. I’m taking a stab at it now for the kid’s sake, looking for an academic career, but I don’t see that most people can or will do what that kind of life requires. I may not be able to either. We’ll see.

  10. chip Says:

    There’s a very intersting article on a topic closely related to this (what does poor mean) in the New Yorker, it touches on a number of things that people have brought up in the comments: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/060403fa_fact

  11. ruby Says:

    one note on the actual definition – i was struck by how firmly rooted it was in full-time work. middle class means having paid vacation? paid insurance? up until 2 weeks ago, my husband and i hadn’t had those things since i went freelance five years ago; he’d already been flying solo for five years by then. but we sure worked hard over those years and rued (sp?) our lack of paid vacation regularly.

  12. Linda Rogers Says:

    In Canada I worked for a politician who asserted that the whole concept of the Middle Class was bogus and a ruse invented by the Right to fool workers into voting against their own self-interest.
    His point of view was that if you could retire right now, this moment, on your investments and returns on various capital assets, then you were a member of the upper class, the ruling elite, and your interests were served by voting for Right Wing parties.
    BUT if you had to depend on wages each month, whether those wages were minimum wage or in the 6 figures, you were a Worker and your interests were served by voting with other workers for politicians that support progressive taxes and preserving public services and the social safety net.

  13. dave.s. Says:

    Virginia Postrel just put up a post about the differences between LA and Dallas in their openness to new constructuction, and the effects of the LA NIMBY zoning in making middle-class existence difficult: http://www.dynamist.com/weblog/archives/002637.html

  14. annie Says:

    so here’s a question.
    background: My husband and I are 25, own our second home 3/2/2(sold that other one), own both cars, live in a pretty hood, dog, cat and expecting a baby. We make around 90 a year, no debit, pay bills, etc but we are ONLY 25 …we are just starting on a nest egg ….how can that be considered a class at all?
    THE QUESTION! ….is there a “starting out” class?
    Once our kids are in school I will find a teaching job at a local public school, but for now I am working from home part time. It actually makes more sense to stay home until the kids are in school, then we don’t pay for childcare and my work is usually from the hours of 3-7 so my husband can come home and take the kids.
    so starting out class ….yeah? ….no?

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