What is the middle class?

Politicians love to talk about the middle class, especially during election season which in the US is pretty much all the time. This group is seen as being the most important in terms of voting strength. But the definition of middle class is a little vague, since it can be defined in terms of income, aspiration, wealth, or levels of consumption. This graphic looks at how the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank also classifies them in terms of demographic factors like age, education, and race, with those doing better than the middle class defined as ‘thrivers’ and those doing worse as ‘stragglers’.


In that model, because of my age, ethnicity, and education, I would be considered a thriver irrespective of my income, whereas a black or Hispanic person of the same age and education and income as me would be middle class. In fact, it seems like black and Hispanic people are completely excluded from the thriver class. I find this puzzling.

How well the middle class is doing is often taken as a measure of the health of the nation. For this purpose, the most common definition uses income as a metric but here too there is a divergence. There are two ways of measuring the condition of the middle class. One is by taking the middle class to be a fixed percentage of the population and seeing whether the income of that group is increasing over time (good) or decreasing (bad). In this approach, family incomes are usually split up into quintiles and the middle class is sometimes taken as just the middle quintile and so is 20% of the population or sometimes as the middle three quintiles and thus makes up 60% of the population.

The other method is to fix middle class in terms of an income range and seeing whether the number of people within that range in increasing over time (good) or decreasing (bad). This is how the influential Pew survey does it. It takes the median income and defines middle class as having incomes ranging from two-thirds of the media to twice the median family income. In 2014, for a family of three this works out to the range $42,000 and $125,000. Pew finds that the number of families in this range has been shrinking from 2000 to 2014.

The term ‘working class’ is not used so much in the US to identify oneself. Referring to oneself a member of the working class used to signify a sense of pride in doing hard, physical work and conveyed a sense of worker solidarity but nowadays it seems to have fallen out of favor. In some sense, any person who has to earn a living by working for someone else is a member of the working class. But when I was an academic, it would have been considered odd if I had described myself as a member of the working class.

The terms ‘white collar’ and ‘blue collar’ can be used to distinguish between the different kinds of work with working class being used for the latter. I also read of an interesting distinction about there being two kinds of jobs: those in which you showered before going to work and those in which you showered when you came home after work. ‘Working class’ would seem to be more appropriate for the latter.

What is interesting is that most people seem to prefer to view themselves as belonging to the middle class, since it suggests a comfortable middle ground. Calling oneself poor suggests that one is a failure. Calling oneself rich is seen as pretentious and boastful and is rarely done except by people like Donald Trump. As a result, even people who might be poor by income may, because of education or social background or recreational interests, still consider themselves to be middle class.


  1. Dunc says

    I tend towards a fairly Marxist approach to class analysis: there are those who make their living through the ownership of capital, and those who make it through productive activity. The latter group can further be divided into those who own the means of their own production (such as professionals and independent tradespersons) and those who sell their labour to those who own the means of production.

    Another useful set of class distinctions I’ve seen fairly recently is from John Michael Greer, and based on a person’s source of income, leading to “investor class”, “salary class”, “wage class”, and so forth.

    Regarding the term “working class”… I remember reading an article fairly recently (I forget where, unfortunately) that was clearly talking about what I’d call “the working class”, but tied itself in such knots to avoid actually using the term that it ended up using a different descriptor in every other sentence. It was inadvertently hilarious.

  2. Dunc says

    I’ve just noticed a pretty major question omitted from that graphic from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank: “Employed?”

  3. Bruce says

    The precise definition of middle class doesn’t matter so much in the USA, in part for reasons you already said earlier. Unless people are sure that they are in the top 1%, or getting welfare, almost all of us feel we are in the middle class. So in terms of voting, that’s 99% of voters.

    But while politicians all give lip service to the middle class, a recent study established that middle class desires have zero influence on what laws get passed. It’s all about the donors instead. And it makes major headlines when a rare candidate such as Bernie is able to run with any significant support from the middle class. Most politicians only get small amounts from us, and so access to submit ideas and preferences goes only to those rich enough to give significantly, which means the upper 1%.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    From a UK perspective, I can’t understand US politicians talking about the middle class, because the defining features of a middle is that it’s in between a lower an upper -- and the USA has no upper class. You just have some rich people.

    Some other questions lacking from that flowchart are:
    Own your home? Thriver.
    Have a mortgage that’s not and never has been sub-prime? Middle class.
    Can’t get a mortgage post-2007? Straggler.

    In other news, to my surprise I discover today that Barack Obama is campaigning against Hillary Clinton and in favour of Donald Trump.
    Sure, on the surface it looks like he’s having a go at Trump -- calling him ignorant and saying he has a cavalier attitude. But to get that far you have to read the actual article. Obama is a past master of generating headlines, and he cannot possibly have not known in advance that the headline that that speech would generate would be:
    “Obama says other world leaders are rattled by Trump”.
    And he cannot possibly think that that headline doesn’t look like a ringing endorsement for Trump. Surely Americans want a leader who has the likes of Putin, Hu Jintao and so on “rattled”?

  5. Dunc says

    the USA has no upper class

    Oh, I don’t know about that… OK, their “old money” isn’t nearly as old as ours, but they’re well on the way to establishing a hereditary aristocracy.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    They’re on their way to establishing a situation where if you’re born rich, you stay rich, unless you try hard not to. That’s not the same thing.

    It’s perfectly possible, in the UK, to be a working class millionaire, and by the same token, be an upper class homeless person. I can’t see that ever being the case in the US -- they’re all about the money. The very idea that an institution as grubby as a bank might have any credibility defining what class you are tells you all you need to know about the USA.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    most people seem to prefer to view themselves as belonging to the middle class

    This was the central genius of Margaret Thatcher, a woman of solidly middle class origins who rose to the highest office and stayed there longer than anyone else in the 20th century by persuading the working classes -- not the natural constituency of the Conservative party -- that they too could be middle class… or at least could consider themselves as such. Selling off the country’s social housing and privatising the nationalised industries (and crucially making it easy for the public to buy and sell the shares) turned a generation into Tories and shifted the Overton window in the UK way to the right, perhaps irretrievably.

  8. Dunc says

    It’s perfectly possible, in the UK, to be a working class millionaire, and by the same token, be an upper class homeless person.

    Like I say, I take a pretty Marxist view on class. It’s not about whether you drop your aitches or know which fork to use for the salad, it’s about whether you need to work, and if you do, whether work for yourself or someone else.

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