What Is Middle Class?

When I was growing up, I had a very different idea of what it meant to be wealthy than most Americans. There were many things that I considered luxuries that I often take for granted today. It took a decade or so before my family had enough capital to purchase a home. I even got my own room, which for me was the truest sign of becoming a regular American kid. When the family’s Nissan Sentra broke down, we upgraded to an Altima – yet another sign of moving on up. When I went to college (thanks in large part to needs-based grants), it was the first time in my life that I had a television in my room – we even had cable! The list of upward mobility acquisitions and activities goes on; they include but are not limited to: Walkmans, Nintendos, family vacation, summer camp, eating out in restaurants and playing tennis (as opposed to basketball or something god-forsakenly ghetto like handball).

At one point, this is what I considered rich
At one point, this is what I considered rich

It’s interesting for me to look back at a time when owning a home, having my own room (with cable TV) and attending college were all considered aspects of being rich. Reading the news today about the middle class reminds me of those times when I had an idea of middle class that was outside of the mainstream. During the recent presidential campaign and the current fiscal cliff negotiation, both parties have been positioning themselves as the defenders of the middle class. In both scenarios, the antagonists are portrayed as part of some moocher class, whether they be welfare recipients or Wall Street financiers.

On the surface, the main partisan disagreement is over whether or not to let the Bush tax cuts expire for families earning more than $250,000. Republicans will lose this battle – even prominent conservatives have admitted that raising taxes a little bit on the wealthy is either necessary, or only slightly bad. So it seems middle class families – those earning less than $250,000 – are in the clear.

Wait a second…$250,000? A family earning more than $200,000 is middle class? Let’s take a look at the numbers. According the the US census, the median family income from 2007-2011 was $52,762.  Only two percent of Americans earn more than $250,000. Households earning more than $150,000 are still in the top 5% of income.

A recent New Yorker article argues that those families earning between $100,000 and $250,000 should not be considered middle class – that they are really the “hautes” – almost rich, and certainly better off than true middle class families.

In a country like the US, everyone likes to consider themselves part of the middle class, to the point that it obscures what the term actually means. As the New Yorker article states, using the $250,000 threshold “enables relatively prosperous citizens to ignore their good fortune and pretend they’re just as put-upon as everyone else. When that happens, the real middle class—not to mention the poor—becomes invisible”.

My idea of middle class has changed considerably since childhood, but not to the extent that it includes families earning over $200,000.


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