Thursday, December 31, 2015

Money Crashers: What Is Considered Middle Class in America?

Last year, I ran across Bob Sullivan's "Restless Project" series on Money Talks News, in which he argued that today, a middle-class family needs to spend at least $100,000 a year "just to feel like it's paying all the bills." I took issue with some of his calculations, and you can read about why in the original post, but I was interested by his attempt to pin down the idea of just what a middle-class lifestyle means. According to his argument, a typical middle-class family has:
  • Two working parents
  • One child in day care
  • One child in private school
  • A 3-bedroom apartment "near one of America's largest cities - Washington, D.C., or Seattle, or Chicago"
  • $500 per month in student loan debt
I had this picture in the back of my mind as I worked on my latest Money Crashers article, which explores just what it means to be middle class. As it turns out, defining the middle class is an extremely touchy subject, and no two authorities seem to agree on what the term really means. I explored news articles, academics, and opinion surveys, and I found many different definitions based on many different factors, from income and net worth to lifestyle and life goals.

I find this topic interesting from a personal point of view, because I'm always trying to figure out where exactly in the American class structure I personally belong. I've never been entirely sure whether the term "middle-class" really fits me or not, and I feel like my research on this article has only muddied the waters further. According to some definitions, like Robert Reich's (which defines a household as middle-class if its annual income falls anywhere between $21,433 and $112,262), Brian and I are solidly middle-class. Yet according to other guidelines, like this interactive graphic in the New York Times, our combination of income, wealth, jobs, and education makes us upper-middle-class rather than middle-class. And our lifestyle makes us middle-class in some ways (owning a home, having health insurance, saving for retirement) but not others (no kids, no regular vacations, annual spending below $38,000 per year). So I still can't say definitively whether I belong to the middle class or not—but at least I can explain why I'm not sure.

Anyway, if you're interested in the same question, whether from a personal standpoint or a purely academic one, you can examine the topic from all angles here:

What Is Considered Middle Class in America? – Definition, Income Range & Jobs
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