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What is a Middle Class Income? Middle Class Family?

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We hear a great deal about the middle class. The middle class is the backbone of our economy. The middle class is hit the hardest by taxes. Those in the middle class work hard. Politicians always heap praise on the middle class because the middle class makes up a rather large chunk of the population.

But what is middle class? Most Americans define themselves as middle class. Chances are, as a reader, you looked at the title of this post and answered the question with a resounding, “Yes!” Being middle class feels almost quintessentially American, like the Fourth of July or the Super Bowl. Turns out, though, that being middle class may not be very cut and dry — and that it has more to do with experience than economics.

Economics vs. Experience

In the world of economics, analysts try out different rules of thumb, basing “middle class” entirely on annual earnings. If you earn in the upper 20%, you are upper income. If you earn the lower 20%, you are lower income. Everyone else — the 60% in between — must be middle class. Others define it as those earning between $25,000 and $100,000 a year. And, when tax policies are discussed, many suggest that those making more than $250,000 are upper income, implying that the middle class is even bigger than rules of thumb might make it. The median household income in 2010 was $49,445, so that gives many a point of reference when trying to determine what, exactly, is middle class.

The truth, though, is that experience has a great deal to do with what constitutes the middle class. One of the reasons that someone making more than $100,000 a year (what some analysts have named “upper middle class”) can honestly feel that he or she is still in the middle class has to do with where he or she came from. Most of us grew up middle class — able to have our needs met, but watching our parents work hard for wants. If you grew up middle class, chances are that surpassing your parents income doesn’t change your view that you are still middle class. You identify with the middle class, and insist that it’s who you are.

Another impact is your experience with costs and with disposable income. Living, as I do, in Utah, I find that my income stretches much further here. My housing cost, food cost, entertainment cost, child care cost, and just about every other cost is less than what I paid when I lived in the state of New York (and I didn’t even live in New York City). While I feel almost wealthy here, I know that I wouldn’t feel nearly so well-to-do if I lived somewhere with a higher cost of living.

Practically speaking, whether or not you are middle class depends on where you live, as well as how much money you make. The average median income of $49,445 might go far in a rural area, but in a major city on one of the coasts, someone making just under $50,000 a year might feel nearly in poverty — no matter what economists say about what’s middle class.

What do you think makes someone middle class?

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50 Responses to “What is a Middle Class Income? Middle Class Family?”

  1. cvargo says:

    My wife and I live in Utah too. We are recent graduates and I consider us to be middle class. My wife a school teacher, me an analyst for a big bank. Combined we make right around 80K. for 23 year olds not bad. But I don’t think I would be considered middle class back east

  2. Mach says:

    It definitely depends on where you live. My wife and I made just over 180k last year in NYC and we certainly don’t feel anywhere near upper middle class.

  3. aa says:

    Does the “income” they always talk about pre-tax or after-tax or AGI?

    • Miranda says:

      I don’t know. I think some people mean pre-tax, and some mean AGI. It’s just one of the many problems with the debate over what makes someone “rich.”

      • amooti michea says:

        miss miranda hen taxs are high date cant make some one rich

      • Americathe beautiful says:

        “rich” tends to mean anyone with a job anymore. AGI is usually what is used. We need taxes to be paid by everyone. If each person paid the same percentage then rich would pay more and we might get the large freeloader percentage to start making some intelligent decisions. Right now they all run to vote for anything they think will put money in there pocket. I REALLY want them toi do something with the EIC welfare bonus check. We have some real working families that deserve it, but no where near even 50%– the corruption there is just crazy.
        How do people get tax money they never even paid. Americas middle class is getting robbed.

  4. Jonathan Brinley says:

    I find terms like “middle” and “upper” misleading in this context. For most people I’ve talked to about it, “middle class” really means “working class”, i.e., people that have to work to maintain their lifestyle (however austere or extravagant that may be).

    It’s not a question of how much money you earn or spend, it’s what you have to do to get that money. If every day you have to go into work, and quitting without another job lined up isn’t an option, then you’re part of the working class. If you have more money than you’ll ever spend in your lifetime, and you either don’t work or you just work because you enjoy what you’re doing, you’re part of the liesure class. Then there are those that only get by on handouts from others (government, charity, friends, etc.) that constitute the dependent class.

    All three classes can overlap, in terms of income and consumption, and which you’re a part of is, to some extent, a state of mind, not a dollar amount.

    • govenar says:

      I agree.
      So maybe tax rates should depend on total net worth, not just annual income; if you make $250,000 in a year but your net worth is only $250k, pay a lower tax rate than someone earning $250,000 with a net worth of $5 million?

      • NateUVM says:

        So…punish the savers who live within their means and reward those that don’t? That seems a bit backwards to me. Probably wise to just keep tax rates tied to income.

        • rs says:

          I agree – chances are you have bought things included in your net worth with “after tax” dollars – wouldn’t that like being taxed again ?

      • Amy says:

        Yes people should pay taxes based on net worth…they may save up but there’s no reason they shouldn’t pay more if they have more money. Think of those people who send their money to off shore banks tax free…income tax evasion right there. It should be like two separate taxes– income and by what you have.
        I might be biased because i fall into poverty income class, but I get sick of seeing people living it up and i struggle to get by because I’m disabled, trying to work, and have bills to pay, plus most places don’t like employing disabled people but I am a hard worker when given the chance to do so. Either pay a tax on it or donate it to charitable organizations to avoid it is my opinion.

        • AMH says:

          It was said above, but I think it bears repeating. We are not (at least officially) in a socialist society. I have been working since the day I graduated college (which I paid for, and am still paying off). I am a 28 YO single woman, and I have saved up a net worth of about $200K in the 5 years since I graduated. This includes maxing out my 401K since the day I started working, so I don’t feel the loss that $17K a year is. I was not handed anything on a silver platter, or any kind of platter, and I think I am better for it. I live below my means, and pay my share of taxes when the time comes for that. Then there are friends of mine, who make half what I do, don’t have a penny in retirement, but feel that UGGS and Coach purses are necessities. These people have the a similar viewpoint as you do, but I would call their’s selfish, since they could afford to save.

          As for your situation, I think you are doing a great thing. My aunt has been working the system for years to avoid working and receive disability payments, even though she doens’t have any issues. With the laws currently in place, you shouldn’t know that companies don’t like employing you, especially if you are a hard worker, so I wouldn’t doubt that they are breaking non-discrimination laws, which could be very easy to prove. If that’s the case, raise the issue with a congressman (woman), especially one nearing re-election. Elections motivate a lot of people.

        • Derrick says:

          That’s a very backward way of looking at it. Its also a belief rooted in 1 of envy. I live in Alabama & make slightly over $20k a yr & I defininitely wouldn’t consider it middle class. I do go to college because I ceetainly hope to not be in this situation forever. I don’t support tax breaks for the wealthy but I do believe in an overall flat rate. 18% for individuals & 15% for a family, regardless of income. That is being fair & equal to everyone. Many people don’t take into account that although it is the same percentage, its a completely different $ amount. 15% for me because I have a son would be around $3300, whereas if I made say 1mil/yr would be $150,000. Its a stark contrast & its the way things should be done. If we did it your way, no one would ever save anything over a certain amount to keep from paying more. I know this may b an odd idea in this new millenium, but let’s doing things honestly for a change, instead of trying to cheat people & lash out toward those more fortunate than we are, because for all you know, they used to be you.YYou have to play the hand you’re dealt. In other words, quit complaining, go out & work for what u get, rather than depend on getting it from someone else, because the world doesn’t owe you anything… you owe it to yourself and your family to work hard, honestly & spend everyday trying better yourself toward a better life

        • robert says:

          I disagree, my wife and I have worked last 40 years.. paid taxes and saved, earned a moderate income. (up to 90k now), looking to retire soon. house paid for, networth probably 700k, no offshore accounts, no inheritance, not looking to pay tax twice.. people need to be taxed on earnings, not savings..

    • Dean Nichols says:

      I like this assessment…I may have read somethning like this before…not sure…but I am struck with the clarity of these descriptions compared to the practically amorphous adjectival phrase “middle class” added to the word Americans.

  5. Matt says:

    $100,000 a year won’t go very far in Northern VA, where I live, with housing costs and everything else being so expensive.

  6. freeby50 says:

    In my opinion, people who make 6 figure incomes yet still claim to be middle class are simply wrong. They may ‘feel’ middle class and they may ‘act’ middle class in many ways, but their income level is absolutely not ‘middle class’ income. It may not be ‘rich’ but it is definitely not ‘middle’.

    I mean by that thinking we could call Warren Buffett middle class. He has a modest home and wears cheapish looking suits. Clearly his income is too high to be middle anything. So it would be silly for him to claim middle class status. Same goes if you’re pulling in $200k.

    I do however agree that the definition of ‘middle’ varies by location. The ‘middle class’ of NYC is a different income range than the middle class of Wichita.

    • Michael says:

      It depends on how many people you support in your family. I am a family of 5, and I can assure you that 100k is barely middle class for a family of 5….

      • freeby50 says:

        $100k with family of 5 people would put you in the top 30%. I’d call that middle or maybe upper-middle.

        So yeah, certainly ‘middle’ if you want to compare it to other families your size. What do you think you’re ‘lower’ class or something cause you have 3 kids?

        • Keeping it real says:

          The factor of how many people you support does in fact matter and at $100k with five poeple would indeed be around middle class, upper middle, I can not agree with. Family size does not determine it fully. Many other factors do matter including location and simply living within your needs. You can conduct a very long list of questions to determine were you stand. Example: What kind of car are you driving daily? If you are driving a Lexus or a Toyota. Do you have a big boat or an RV and how much is that costing you yearly? This is half the battle! How you choose to spend what you have as well. Most people claim to be lower or middle class with a $100k of income, but most not all, also over spend therefore making themself self poor.

  7. aua868s says:

    @ aa….i would assume it as pre-tax as the other numbers could vary on an individual basis even if Pre-Tax ammount was identical.

  8. Stacey says:

    living in a rural area, I always hate it when you “assume” living in a rural area is cheaper and money stretches further. It takes $20 in gas just for me to go clothing shopping. And when I get there 50 miles down the road? My choices are limited and because of the time/expense to get there, I buy what I need regardless of sales/etc.
    Need baby tylenol after 9 p.m.? Suck it up and pay the ridiculous price at the local gas station/convenience store as nothing else is open.

    It’s not cheaper to live in rural america, trust me.

    • Matt says:

      Housing is a lot cheaper and I assume if you wanted you grow some food or raise some cows to save money.

      • Scott says:

        Growing food and raising cows comes at a dollar cost and opportunity (time) cost and may not actually save you anything. It’s all about personal priorities.

    • Jon says:

      So, next, we’ll have to tackle the definition of “rural”.

    • NateUVM says:

      This is an important distinction. Different living conditions (distance to market, transportation costs, etc…) play a part in the cost of living discussion. So we need to be sure we are comparing “urban” areas to other “urban” areas, and likewise for “rural.”

      However, while the author may have generalized Utah as being “rural” in her example, the point is that a basket of given goods costs different things in different places (i.e. Utah vs. NYC).

      Stacey – there is probably some way to find out ahead of time(internet, fliers, etc…), when sales will occur. Difficult if you NEED a particular item of clothing (or whatever) right away and don’t have a choice, but that happens in “urban” areas too! :)

    • Quaye says:

      I have lived in rural MS and not in Atlanta. It is ALOT cheaper in rural America. The home, grocery, child care and most everything else is more expensive. We did have to drive for everything in MS but that in no way made it close to the cost of living in Atlanta. I moved here after college and it was an adjustment for me but Atlanta is still one of the least expensive cities on the East Coast to live in.

  9. Ben says:

    I make significantly more than my parents did at my age yet I am in a lower income class bracket because of 40 yrs of out-of-control inflation and the number of dependents I have.

    • NateUVM says:

      Not entirely true. Everything being equal, increases in pay trend with increasing prices. The issue here is that there is increased competition through the steady globalization of markets, so pay has not been able to keep pace with said inflation.

      Post-WWII, the rest of the industrialized world was in shambles while the US’s relatively un-harmed (some would say mobilized) manufacturing sector was just getting going with no real international competitors. Companies could afford to pay their workers enough so that they could support single-earner households. As the rest of the world was able to catch up*, competition has increased and that high wage, relative to the rest of the world, has been normalizing.

      Add to that the advances in technology that have brought the world markets closer together (better communication, transportation, etc…), and that competition becomes more efficient.

      So, unless you aren’t a fan of improving technology, or want to start another land war with Europe/Asia/etc.., the trend is probably going to continue.

      It’s not all Bernanke’s fault. ;)

      (* Some quicker than others. Think Japan was helped by not having to commit any resources to maintaining a military? And then we also know who took up that burden for them…)

    • freeby50 says:

      We have not had 40 years of out of control inflation. Inflation in the past 40 years has averaged around 4%. Thats definitely not ‘out of control’.

      • G Guynn says:

        I am a disabled man now ,I went to work at age 12 and was paying $40 a month for rent .at that time I could buy 4 loafs of bread for a dollar ,I made 3.50 cents an hour in 1972 .In 1978 I made 5 oo bucks an hour ,my rent was 140 a month,I now live on what I made in 1980 ,if someone says inflation is not all that bad,doesnot shop for them selves,A loaf of bread now is 2.00 dollars ,milk is 5.00 ,my morgage on my house in 1985 was 98.oo today 650.00 same house .A man might be taxed for middle class but he lives in poverty class .I worked 60 to 80 hours a week to make 35.000 a year I was taxed in the 30% bracket .When one is self employed and makes 50.000 a year ,he may take home 25.000 .The classification of being poor or middle or rich should be after taxes and what you acually take home .

      • Akita78 says:

        Maybe true but has pay raises kept up with the 4% inflation climb over the past 40 years? My parents mad X amount of $ 40 years ago and bout a house which was a certain % of there income. Now a days there is a greater divide in how much a person makes vs the cost of a house per say.

  10. Ben says:

    I have a higher income than my parents did at my age yet am in a lower income class because of 40+ years of out-of-control inflation and the number of dependents I have.

  11. Melinda says:

    I also think it matters to ask if someone is single or married or has kids…I’m single and I make $52,000 as a credit specialist and I don’t have any kids. My boyfriend on the other hand makes less and has 2 kids. I consider myself middle class. I come from a single income family, my dad made about $75,000 before he retired and my mom stayed at home but we were definitely middle class.

  12. Tak Nomura says:

    I also think the term middle class is over-used without much semblance to reality. It depends a great deal on various issues such as cost of housing, food, and fuel. An individual making $60k in some places may be considered middle class, but I doubt very much it can be considered middle class in high cost of living areas such as Silicon Valley.

    It also depends on other factors such as size of family, savings, debts, and other fixed expenses.

    An individual making $100k a year might sound like a lot of money, but with a family of four living in relatively good housing in Silicon Valley would be a stretch. $100k someplace else could mean that family is rich.

    It’s a tough call based on many variables.

  13. Shorebreak says:

    “Middle Class” is a state of mind. It cannot be quantified monetarily anymore. There are too many variables involved.

  14. This is something I have been thinking about for a while now, and I have decided it’s one of the biggest reasons we are in our current economic situation.

    There is such a stigma associated with being low or high class, everyone wants to be considered middle. With the rampant availability of easy credit, it is easy to pretend to appear middle class by purchasing a larger house/car/etc. than we can afford.

  15. Maerzie says:

    All I know is that there are PLENTY of fools, who do not make ANYWHERE NEAR the $250,000 EACH to benefit from ANY of the Republican legislation, and they STILL get DUPED by the propaganda and vote AGAINST themselves!

    WHEN will they ever wake up?? When all our democratic freedomas are COMPLETELY gone?? The republicans are already cutting funds for education, as one of their FIRST priorities. They NEED many more poorly educated people who are gullible to their lies, twists, and slander propaganda! THOSE are their “RECRUITS” for the VOTES they are always needing because there are only such a FEW of the REAL REPUBLICANS with all the money, who do not contribute their fair share to pay our country’s bills! They live on the dole, the republican “WELFARE way”, with their enormous tax deductions, subsidies, and grants! The “WELFARE” we never hear about because they call it by much cuter and NICER names!! BUT, it IS WELFARE money from OUR tax dollars TO the multi-millionaires and billionaires!

    • Matt says:

      Well the Bush tax cuts lowered tax rates from 17% to 14% for people earning between 35,000$ and 70,000$ and only from 30.8% to 30.2% for people earning over 2 million. So it seems like they help the middle class a lot more than the rich.

      • Travis says:

        until you do the math. What’s the difference between 17% of $70,000 and 14% of $70,000. Then do the math for 2 million a year at 30.8 and 30.2. It’s a mask. Its like saying I gave both my employees a 2 percent raise because I wanted to be fair. Well, Tom makes 20 bucks an hour and Bob makes 100 an hour. .38 cents for Tom and 2 bucks for Bob. Twist it however you want it.

  16. Phil says:

    I think the article gets closest to describing what is truly meant by “middle class”. The classes are much like this;

    Poverty/lower class: those who work but struggle to cover necessities (food, basic housing, meds.)
    Middle class: those who work and cover all primary necessities and some degree of “want”.
    Upper middle class: those who work, cover all necessities, most wants, and also manage to accumulate wealth.
    Leisure or upper class: those with accumulated wealth great enough that work is not necessary in their lifetime to cover the necessities.

    These descriptions then include, by their very nature, location in the equation. Looking at this description, people in all regions can fall under each of those catagories. This also, then, allows us to limit the qualification or “stigma” associated with each class, at least for economic discussion purposes.

    As far as that goes, we all tend to associate from where we start out. We all develop a bit of a defensive posture relative to that classification, even if we are working on changing it or feel trapped by it. This is human nature…

  17. Amy says:

    I guess I must fall into the poverty income then. However the government benefits for that define middle class at a lower income than 25k a year. Kind of sad when you think about it, but it might have something do with the fact I am only a single person household. Funny thing is the middle class likes to get all in arms about not having money to spend they ought to have my life–oh well at least I get free stuff from the food pantry.

  18. bloodbath says:

    Where I come from ‘middle class’ means personal/family values not earnings or money.

    That said, I made $115k per year in NYC and felt middle class (not upper middle class) and now retired I make $30k per year in Georgia and I still feel middle class. My lifestyle has not changed much – I can afford everything I really need including vacationing.

  19. Dusty. says:

    If you have money hidden in the offshore accounts, you are not middle class. You are not even upper class.

  20. dave says:

    I think everyone should have to pay a flat tax,say if you make 100,000 a year you pay 10,000 tax,by the same token if you make 30,000 you pay 3,000tax ,shall we say 10%.

  21. Jason's says:

    I don’t think that people really get it! I make $40 k yearly and I don’t think punishing someone who makes more than me would be fair! A flat tax on income should be the only tax on any money! Because of people who think differently people with money don’t spend it here, they spend it in other country’s , or hide it because they are punished for basically being smarter!

  22. Derrick says:

    That’s a very backward way of looking at it. Its also a belief rooted in 1 of envy. I live in Alabama & make slightly over $20k a yr & I defininitely wouldn’t consider it middle class. I do go to college because I ceetainly hope to not be in this situation forever. I don’t support tax breaks for the wealthy but I do believe in an overall flat rate. 18% for individuals & 15% for a family, regardless of income. That is being fair & equal to everyone. Many people don’t take into account that although it is the same percentage, its a completely different $ amount. 15% for me because I have a son would be around $3300, whereas if I made say 1mil/yr would be $150,000. Its a stark contrast & its the way things should be done. If we did it your way, no one would ever save anything over a certain amount to keep from paying more. I know this may b an odd idea in this new millenium, but let’s doing things honestly for a change, instead of trying to cheat people & lash out toward those more fortunate than we are, because for all you know, they used to be you. You have to play the hand you’re dealt. In other words, we as a society must quit complaining, go out & work for what u get, rather than depend on getting it from someone else, because the world doesn’t owe you anything… you owe it to yourself and your family to work hard, honestly & spend everyday trying better yourself toward a better life. That said, I feel for your situation as a disabled person. I am not disabled myself but my son was born disabled. He’s only 6 but I know its not easy. I barely get by myself, but someone who is disabled must work twice as hard as everybody else just to keep up. We can’t help what other people do or say, but we can affect how we act & respond to the adversity of our own situations. I know there are those out there who are worse off than I, & to them I’ve got it good because they have so little. I know its discouraging, but if u r confident n ur own abilities as a hard worker, then take pride in that, not strike out toward others who have more. Take care & God bless

  23. Nathan says:

    I make $45,000 a year with a family of five in arkansas. We have a 1800 sqf. house and two vehicles. I feel like were middle-middle class, but as others have said, its how you spend your money. Netflix is our tv. No cable/dish. Buy used clothes because they keep us just as warm. Clean our own cars with shop vac and waterhose. Its all about buying what you need and needing what you buy.

  24. Justin says:

    I’m 20 years old and support a family of three. I make around 90k a year and live in southern West Virginia. We live very comfortably since the cost of living in my area is minuscule. I still consider us middle class due to the lifestyle and community we live in.

  25. Philip says:

    That plain fact is that our Government needs to stop spending our money like water. The waste is incredible. We should not balance there crooked books.


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