The middle class is shrinking, but don’t tell that to the average man on the street. Seventy percent of Americans think of themselves as part of the middle class, a 2017 survey by Northwestern Mutual found. But if you look at household income – one of the most common measures of middle-class status – the share of households in the middle-income tier has dropped from 71% in 1971 to 52% in 2016, according to Pew Research data.
Where did the middle class go? The lucky ones moved up the income ladder. Nineteen percent of adults are now in upper-income tier, compared to 14% in the early 1970s. But some fell out of middle class, as the number of people in the bottom grew from 25% to 29% of the population.
The median middle-class income is $78,442
The typical three-person middle-class household earns $78,442 a year, according to Pew. Nationally, middle class incomes ranged from $45,200 to $135,600. (Pew defines “middle income” as those “whose annual household income is two-thirds to double the national median, after incomes have been adjusted for household size.”)
Of course, $78,000 a year goes a lot farther in Sheboygan than it does in San Jose. To find out whether you’re in the middle class for your city, you can use Pew’s calculator.
To make it to the middle class in Honolulu – where the cost of living is 88% above the national average – your family needs to earn at least $56,250 a year. But in Jackson, Tennessee, you can call yourself middle class if you make $37,150 a year.
Some cities are more middle-class than others. In places like Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Elkhart, Indiana, more than 60% of the population was middle class. These middle-class cities tended to be clustered in the Midwest and the Northeast. Cities with a greater share of upper-income households were mostly located near the coasts in the Northeast and California, while predominantly low-income areas are mostly located in the Southwest.
Other ways of defining the middle class
Focusing on income is the easiest way to sort people into class categories. But some argue that middle-class status is about more than how much money you make. While some definitions of the middle class focus on what the Brookings Institution calls “cash” (basically, your financial resources, such as your income, purchasing power, or net worth), others look at “credentials” (your education or type of employment”) or “culture” (your attitudes or behavior).
If you see your class status as more about what you do for a living or how you live your life, then it’s less surprising that so many Americans self-identify as middle-class, even when the numbers might suggest they’re not. More than a third of people who earn less than $30,000 a year say they’re middle class, a 2015 Pew survey found, while 85% of those earning more than $100,000 call themselves middle class or upper-middle class.
One thing that is clear. Real wages for many Americans are stagnant, with most gains over the past decades flowing to the highest earners. Yet the cost of things like housing, childcare, and education is steadily rising. That leaves many Americans feeling like they can’t get ahead.
There is some good news. By Pew’s measures, the share of middle-class households actually ticked upward slightly from 2011 to 2016, from 51% to 52%. But that rebound doesn’t erase the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population.
“[E]ven as the American middle class appears not to be shrinking (for now),” wrote Pew’s Rakesh Kochhar, “it continues to fall further behind upper-income households financially, mirroring the long-running rise in income inequality in the U.S. overall.”
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