In many reports, studies, and articles, the meaning of “middle class” in the United States is very loosely defined. The reason for this is that the definition of “middle class” changes from state to state, based on who is doing the defining and for what purpose. The variation is huge. One of the narrowest definitions limits it to those who are literally in the middle fifth of the nation’s income ladder. A wider definition includes everyone but the poorest 20 percent and the wealthiest 20 percent. Some experts prefer to use wealth as opposed to income as a determining factor, defining middle class as the middle three-fifths of the wealth spectrum. Another method to define middle class is by consumption or how much is spent. Still others define middle class by aspirations and achievements, such as home ownership, health and retirement security, car ownership, or family vacations. Others use demographic characteristics such as age, education, and race to determine middle class.
As such, the question of “What is middle class?” is very difficult to answer. For the purposes of this article, we look at the definition of middle class by median family income by city.
How Much Does the Middle Class Earn?
A Pew Charitable Trust analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data found that the middle class has shrunk in every state between 2000 and 2013. In 2013, the median income of U.S. households was $51,939, down from $55,562 in 2001. Analysts blame the recession, and longer-run trends such as globalization, the decline of unions, technological change, and the rising costs of benefits as factors.
What is Middle Class: Family Income by City, 2013
Global Middle Class
On a global scale, the vast majority of Americans can be considered either upper-middle income or high income. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, many Americans classified as “poor” by the U.S. government would be considered middle income globally.
Percentage of U.S. and Global Populations by Income in 2011
Source: Pew Research Center