Asked if you know someone in the middle class, you might name yourself…and your friends. We all know people in the middle class. In fact, few of us know people who are not middle class.
Where are we going? Ask people what they mean by the middle class and it becomes a mystery. In one Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, they even say that Congress needs information on the middle class but “there is no official government definition of who belongs in the middle class…”
So, I tried to identify the middle class.
Finding the Middle Class: Dollars
Asked with which class they identified, in the most current Population Survey (Census Bureau), respondents with incomes ranging from $39,736 to incomes exceeding $104,087 said the middle class.
Below, I’ve circled the 98 million households that would have self-identified as the middle class in that survey:
For another point of view, you could ask the White House Task Force on the Middle Class. Combining money and aspirations, they said you are middle class if you want a house, a car, college education for your children, family vacations and health and retirement security. Translated into a number, the total income for a middle class married couple with two children is somewhere between $50,800 and $122,800 in 2008 dollars.
Other definitions target either current or permanent income, who is in a person’s reference group, and how close your income is to the 2012 median household income of $51,017. Talking medians, though, takes you to debating how far to stretch the middle class above and below that median (which is the midpoint of all household incomes if they were lined up, side by side).
Finding the Middle Class: Values
I rather like what NY Times columnist David Brooks has said about values:
“To be middle class is to have money to spend on non-necessities. But it also involves a shift in values. Middle-class parents have fewer kids but spend more time and money cultivating each one. They often adopt the bourgeois values — emphasizing industry, prudence, ambition, neatness, order, moderation and continual self-improvement. They teach their children to lead different lives from their own, and as Karl Marx was among the first to observe, unleash a relentless spirit of improvement and openness that alters every ancient institution.”
Last year, the Pew Research Center surveyed the global middle class and found that middle-class people are more likely than their poorer countrymen to value democracy, free speech and an objective judiciary. They were more likely to embrace religious pluralism and say that you don’t have to believe in God to be good.
Our Bottom Line: Congress
The Congressional Research Service says that the Congress is very interested in the middle class. For decisions about taxes, means-tested benefits, and social insurance, the Congress wants to know the impact on the middle class. When the Congress considers jobs legislation, they have sought to focus on employment that creates a middle class standard of living.
However, keeping the middle class happy has been a problem recently. More about that in the future.