What is the “Middle Class?”

On the radio today, All Things Considered did a little “Brief History of the Middle Class.” Apparently, according to Pew Research center, a family is in the middle class if its income is between about $47k/yr and $141k/yr. They also have breakdowns of wealth (if you are in net debt, you are not middle class) and consumption.


My own definition middle class has more to do with economic security than it does with wealth, income, or many types of consumption. To wit:

If you do not need to worry about food, housing, transportation, health care, education for your children, and safety, and can look forward to a retirement with those same basic needs satisfied, and you are not at risk of losing any of those things immediately on some negative shock, like an accident, negative diagnosis, or loss of job, then you have achieved middle class status. My definition doesn’t have anything to do with iDevices, high speed Internet, vacation or dining out.

It’s tricky, because I think a lot of people who do have nice things, like fancy cars, and big houses, don’t actually have solid economic security. I don’t know if they’re middle class or not.

What do you think the definition of middle class should be?

2 thoughts on “What is the “Middle Class?””

  1. Like, but harder to operationalize than points in the distribution of incomes. And your definition would leave us with today’s upper-middle and upper classes…

    1. My definition definitely does not speak to the upper limit of the middle class. That’s harder to put your finger on, but it also strikes me, perhaps because I am too American, as not really that important.

      I will agree that my definition is not easy to operationalize, but I think that’s sort of the point of this post, that the definitions that we do use, because we have data, seem quite wrong.

      I have an even more succinct version of the lower bound on middle class: your human potential is not limited by privation and other factors beyond your control.

      There is actually one “easy” way to operationalize such a definition: make sure everyone’s human potential is not limited due to privation and other factors beyond their control. If we lived in such a world, I would not worry too much about the definition of the upper limit of the middle class at all.

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