Rethinking The Middle Class, Part 2: The Explanation

There are a lot of articles out there with some variation on the title “Are you considered middle class?” I suppose that is not surprising. The middle class is a hot topic these days, as everyone wants to save it from shrinking out of existence, and maybe provide it some tax breaks while they’re at it. What is surprising, is that not one of the articles posing that question seems to be able to answer it. Which got me wondering:

Why is it so hard to define the middle class? And why is it that most people believe they are middle class no matter how much, or how little, they make? One fascinating article in The Atlantic tries to answer these exact questions. Anat Shenker-Osorio writes in his “Taxonomy of how we talk about class and wealth in America:”

Researching how people’s unconscious assumptions affect their perception of economic issues, I explored the linguistic dynamics behind the term “middle class,” especially in comparison to other economic groupings. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a database of more than 450 million words from speeches, media, fiction, and academic texts, among the most common words (excluding conjunctions and prepositions among others) co-occurring with “middle class” we find “emerging,” “burgeoning,” “burdened,” and “squeezed.” These tell us what happens to this grouping. Absent are quantitative terms or descriptors for what life is like within this category. In fact, in common usage, we rarely hear about actual people named within it; middle class may as well describe a grouping of potted plants or pop cans. There’s little here tied to income or lifestyle.

Conversely, statements about “the wealthy” co-occur with terms like “investors,” “businessmen,” “patrons,” “owners,” and “donors.” What these words indicate is a sense of sources of income and, by extension, the amount compensated. The wealthy, in our language, aren’t acted upon but rather act as human members of a group who get things done and pay themselves to do it.

“Poor,” once the meaning of low quality is filtered out, comes with “guy” and “girl” but also “homeless,” “sick,” “plight,” “needy,” and “suffering.” Those descriptors provide a sense what it’s like to be in this group day to day, and they make pretty clear it’s made up of people who aren’t allowed any or much income.

Shenker-Osorio goes on to remind us of all the examples of wealth we see on television and in the media, via “reality” TV like The Real Housewives or Keeping up with the Kardashians. If that kind of money depicts the rich, even people making $500,000 aren’t going to identify as being rich themselves. As for the poor, while we’d rather not see poverty, the idea of the panhandler, or homeless person is a salient one, and with that as a defining image, people are unlikely to call themselves “poor.” “Not finding popular depictions of wealth and poverty similar to our own lived experiences,” Shenker-Osorio goes on to say, “we determine we must be whatever’s left over. Picking “middle class” is easy enough to do because, again, the language doesn’t present much to go on in terms of what this label describes.”

Looking to others, and seeing that they have more, could be why many in the upper class, and even the rich, believe they are middle class. One U.S. News Money article suggests that when we know how much people like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Mitt Romney are worth, it is easy for the rich to say, “well I’m not in that group, so I must be middle class.”

The article goes on to point out that it’s not all that illogical to feel that way. The difference between the true middle class (making around $50,000 a year) and the top 20% (making around $103,000 a year) is only $53,000, which isn’t all that much. But the difference between a family making $100K a year and a millionaire making $900K a year is a difference that is nearly 17 times as great.

“As you work your way up the income ladder, inequality grows,” he says. “If people make $104,096 per year, which puts them in the richest 20 percent of the population, they feel ‘relatively’ poor because they compare themselves to people in the top 1 percent of the income distribution – people making over $500,000, but primarily millionaires.”

This really hit home for me. I was convinced that I wasn’t upper class because I can afford the life I imagined the middle class had access to, and nothing more. In my mind, the upper class could always take vacations, and buy nice things without credit cards, and basically do, or have, whatever they wanted.

In my late twenties and early thirties, all my friends from college were making more than I was, significantly so. My three best girl friends are a lawyer, an MD and high-up New York City employee, each making well over six figures. For years they met up annually in some exotic locale and enjoyed the sites, along with each other’s company. They were clearly upper class, while I, stuck at home (a trip to Thailand completely out of my reach), was middle class.

Looking back, I recognize a similar comparison mindset growing up: my dad was at the height of his career during the Internet/tech boom, when those lucky few who got in at the ground floor made millions when their start up went public. Many of his friends made their fortunes that way, and were able to retire (semi- or completely) in their 40’s or 50’s. These friends bought lavish mansions, trading in their new cars for something newer every few years and living extravagant lives, all in one the most expensive areas in the country. My dad chased that dream for the rest of his life, many times leaving the relative stability of one job to be at the ground floor somewhere else. But instead of cashing in stock options, he usually ended up getting laid off, and the only reason we maintained our lifestyle through those stressful times was the deep savings accounts my mom cultivated. Surely we couldn’t be upper class when our friends had so much, and my father endured long stretches of unemployment. The contrast made it impossible.

They say comparison is the thief of joy, but it can also misconstrue reality, especially when it’s based primarily on assumption. A quick glance at my peers suggests that everyone we know is doing as well as, if not better, than we are. But the reality is I don’t know how much familial help they have, or if they are willing to put that European vacation on a credit card. I don’t know if they got a scholarship to send their kid to the primary school that costs $30K a year, or if they are scrimping and saving all year to pay for that really nice summer camp at the creativity museum. Just because someone has something I don’t, doesn’t mean they are more financially secure than I am.

According to this article at USNews Money, our income (over $150,000) puts us in the top 5% of earners in the United States. The same article declares that those who make $250,000 a year are in the top 1% (though a different article from Slate claims that earning $250K a year puts you in the top 2% and you need to make $395,000 to be so reviled by the other 99%, which is a significant difference).* I know people who fall into those income strata, and I can assure you they don’t self-identify as the top 1% or 2%. I definitely don’t feel like I’m in the top 5%. When your peers seem to be affording the same life you live, or one with even more amenities, it’s hard to maintain perspective.**

The reality is that as a country we carry over $1 TRILLION dollars in credit card debt, and that 75% of households don’t have enough in liquid savings to cover an unexpected expense of $400. Over three fourths of the generation that is getting ready to retire does not have nearly enough saved to live off of. Most households are one accident, illness or layoff away from complete financial devastation.

Sitcoms and commercials have been portraying the American middle class since television’s inception, and their depiction rarely wavers. These images of a warm home and quirky family make it easy for anyone to recognize their own life on the screen. We all share the same basic hopes and fears, no matter how much money we make. We all want the same things for our family, and see ourselves working hard to achieve them. It’s no wonder that most people see themselves as being middle class, even if they fall outside the considerable spectrum.

But there is something else at play, an important piece of the psychological puzzle. I believe it is more important than the muddling lack of quantitative terms describing the middle class and more pervasive than the illusion of comparison. I think it may even be the determining factor in a person’s own perception of where they fall in America’s economic class system–I have identified it as the single biggest reason I find it so hard to recognize myself as upper class. What could this missing puzzle piece be? More on that tomorrow…

Do you find yourself comparing your financial situation to those of others? Does doing that make you feel more, or less, financially secure?

*Yet another article claims that if you make $115K a year you’re in the top 10% earners, which means that, according to the numbers from Pew Center Research, you can be middle class and be in the top 10% of earners. I don’t really understand that.

**Touching on upper earners and fluctuating incomes, I found these numbers from the Slate article very interesting:

Those affluent moments are more common than you might think. More than 76 percent of Americans get to experience the joys of a six-figure household income for at least one year, just more than half will make $150,000 or more at some point, and about 20 percent hit the $250,000 mark at least once, which these days would put them within the top 2 percent of earners.

But incomes are erratic. According to Rank and his collaborators, just half of Americans hit six figures for five or more years, and only one-third manage it for a decade total. Meanwhile, less than 2 percent cross the quarter-million-dollar threshold for at least 10 years of their lives. Just 1 percent do it for 10 consecutive years.


  1. This makes perfect sense, actually. It’s a bell curve. I never really understood why so many people identify as middle class, even when they’re not. But the idea that there’s a larger gap in income between the top 5% and top 10% than even, say, the top 290% vs 30% makes so much sense!

    1. Yeah, that caused a bell to go off for my too. It does make a lot of sense for someone who makes $150K to feel really differently about someone who makes $350K, especially since basic cost of living eventually plateaus (as far as what people actually need), so anything over that can be accumulated as wealth or spent on lavish things.

  2. Interesting post. Anat Shenker-Osorio is a woman, FYI.

    How does having one or two incomes in the household affect these distinctions? If a single person made $150K, that seems like it should be in the top 5% of income. But $150K in a two-income household doesn’t seem that high (i.e., $75K per year doesn’t seem like top 5% to me). But, then again, if a single parent made $150K, s/he doesn’t seem better off than a 2 income family where each partner makes $75K.

    I wonder why I’m so focused on salary, rather than the income that is actually accruing to a family. Maybe it’s a status thing for me?

    1. I never had any idea how much money was brought in to my household when I had a partner. Now, as a single mom, every penny is counted and placed into a specific place for a certain expense. I agree a two-income family at $150K versus a single person at $150K should be differentiated. Using a net income of approximately $100K to pay for a single person household versus a 3-4 person household is significant. If I were single without children, I could be socking away a good portion of my income for savings or paying down a mortgage. As a single mom, responsible for 3 people, my income is spent mostly before I even receive the notification of direct deposit.

      1. I’m pretty sure that whenever an income level is mentioned in an article it’s for a four-family household but I could be wrong. I don’t remember if the Slate article specified that. It absolutely would make a HUGE difference.

    2. Thanks for clarifying! I will change the pronoun in my post!

      I’m pretty sure that when they talk income numbers in these articles they are talking about four person households (or rather households were two adults could be earning). I don’t think the Slate article specified that, but in every article that did specify the size of the household, that was the case. I think that is just the metric that economists use when they talk about household income. And of course, in that scenario, it’s not specified if there is one or two earners. A family that is making that much where one parent can stay home is doing better (in my book) than a family where both adults are working to make that money, because then childcare is an expense, and if one adult isn’t working, they could to add to the household income, or get a job if the primary earner got sick or laid off. So yeah, that distinction is important, but not necessary part of the “middle class” conversation (as far as these articles go).

  3. Growing up, I always identified as middle class though my mom always compared our lives to those of the neighbors. “Oh they must have so much money. They’ve done this or that to their house and taken fantastic voyage vacations.” It’s all in the perspective. My children’s father has an insane need to appear to be of a certain class. He has to have a certain car, or a live in a certain zip code or have a certain area code on his cell phone. He used to lie about where my house was because it was 1.5 miles away from THE suburb to live in and he was embarrassed. He has shown he needs to live a certain way so others perceive him to be well off. I can tell you, his broke ass may drive a nice car and wear fancy suits, but he can’t afford his kids’ child care or co-pays for doctor’s appointments. Just because it appears a certain person has it all, behind the scenes, there may be a whole different set of circumstances.

    1. Yeah, I’m learning this more and more. I am quick to see someone and assume they are making the same kinds of decision that I am making (or at least trying to make those decisions) but that is probably not the case more than it is. I have to work hard to remember that.

  4. Yes, this makes perfect sense. Its about how your feel relative to others. If you feel there are people worse off than you but also people better of than you, you identify yourself as being somewhere in the middle—hence “middle class”.

    1. Yeah, the articles about this were actually really interesting. I’ve enjoyed “researching” this topic a lot.

  5. I am so glad you are talking about this!

    First: I thought of myself as middle class growing up, and I think I basically was. In contrast to your childhood I was pretty squarely in the middle of my friends. I had one friend who was true “white trash”, and her toys and clothes were all hand me downs, her dad had built their house from a kit behind the old one they had vacated for being falling down (which they then used as a trash dump), he was often drunk on the couch, and him and her mom were variably out of work. Our close friend had a mom who didn’t work and all the new toys and clothes in the world. A huge projection TV in the 80s, corvettes, etc. I could tell I was not in either of those camps.

    My parents had less money when I got to be a tween, right around the time I started caring about clothes (age 11 or so) I was expected to buy all of my own school clothes. My mom would buy occasional formal wear for church or whatever, and there was Xmas and birthdays, but I had to use my allowance and any other money I made for everything else. Once when I was 13 I went to the mall and splurged like 50 hours of babysitting money on a pair of guess jeans I thought I needed to be in style, which I then accidentally left in the mall bathroom and they got stolen. My parents could not afford to replace them, even with levis. But we always had food, our utilities were never cut off, we had a decent suburban home, and aside from making me buy my own stuff my parents fully protected me from any money stress they felt. I was expected to take out school loans and pay my way through grad school myself, though my parents definitely pitched in for undergrad. Strict 4 year limit here too, but I knew about it from day 1.

    My kid now is growing up so different from this. I was amazed to hear your income because we make about the same amount, and don’t get any help from our family, live in the Bay Area, have 2 cars, and I feel like we are doing well. I never have to worry about money like I did until age 34 or so anymore (I was poor during grad school and for some years after we moved here we went further in debt every month). I don’t save as much as I would like, as you say the house tends to eat money when I get more than $5-7K in there, but I am able to put down $1700 per month for our retirements. Your mortgage seems like about $1500 more per month but you also have a tenant, so I don’t know how we compare there. The main difference I see is that we have only one kid.

    1. I included what we receive from our tenant in our “income,” because we perceive it as such. I don’t really feel like having two kids is costing us so much right now, except maybe in how much we have to spend in groceries and the fact that we’re still paying for childcare, when we wouldn’t be if we only had one kid, and we still have four years left of childcare to pay for (I guess 3.5 now) before our second is in kindergarten. Then when they are in school we’ll have two times the after care to pay. But otherwise, yeah, the having a second kid shouldn’t make too much of a difference. I guess, if we only had one kid, we wouldn’t want to move into our downstairs unit as we’d already have a bedroom in our two bedroom house, and only having one bathroom would probably feel more doable in the long run (I’m thinking when we have teenagers) with only one kid. But right now, yeah, it’s not that big of a difference.

      1. Plus “Bay Area” is pretty broad. Depending on location you can live like a king on money that you can barely eek by on in SF.

    2. A $1500 per month difference in housing cost is huge. Since Noemi counted rental income as income, that seems to be the main difference between your two situations.

  6. Thanks for keeping up the interesting dialogue. I found your comment about thinking things when you see someone…recent example for me. There’s a family whose kid goes to daycare with mine: they run a small company but based on comments I’ve heard it seemed it wasn’t extremely profitable. I can tell the child wears hand me downs (as does my youngest)– they have an older child too. So anyway my impression was that they were “middle class” just like us (since debunked, but you know what I mean). Then we were invited to a bday party at their house. Which is way out of our league. Way. So I found that interesting.

    What I’ve also noticed is I compare myself and our financial/house situation to other families a lot. I don’t consider myself a “material girl” at all so I wonder why I do this. It’s strange about appearances–I see some parents at pickup who seem kind of schlubby and then I find out later that they have prestigious jobs that make me feel inadequate.

  7. The Slate on the erratic nature of incomes really hits an important point. That higher incomes may not last for very many years. Emphasizes the importance of living below one’s income always, and forecasting expenses and then planning how to meet them.
    I worked in HR and accounting and used to watch young people live wonderful expensive fabulous lives…. on their credit cards. And then have to come ask for payroll advances to pay income taxes and credit cards and avoid repo of cars and other toys. How the ‘Jones’ appear to be living isn’t always the full picture at all. It was the men who earned 3xs what I did and outspent their incomes that most appalled me. And, they had no idea how it was possible that my children graduated 4 years University California schools with no debt. I was careful and it was tough.

  8. I grew up middle class, probably with advantages over many/most of my peers who were blue collar while my family made more as white collar employees. It was clear though, because my grandparents are old school upper class, that we were not upper class even if financially we glimpsed it. I spend a lot of time in professional settings comparing my appearance of wealth with other pharmacists. I don’t make the big bucks and am probably underpaid even for my rural area relative to my peers. I have no flashy jewelry with giant diamonds and I own a single nice suit and three nice shirts for business attire, so I try to be sneaky. We invest in nice clothes and shoes, but I have two pairs of shoes total right now because a new pair isn’t yet in the budget. Outside of professional events where my “peers” are around, I don’t much compare our situation to others because it’s been such a fight to get here. We spent some of my student loans one year on a tablet to replace our decrepit old computer that quit working and got such nasty looks when using the thing and applying for emergency assistance. Just because we got nice stuff once doesn’t mean we had constant income! We just knew we wouldn’t make enough pawning our mediocre stuff for it to be worth it, so we hung onto it. We still use that thing 5.5 years later. I suppose as a result of our very broke years (when my spouse’s income was at the bottom of middle class but we needed full time childcare because I was in school) I will always compare down in income and consider how fantastically lucky we are.

  9. I have been MIA in the comments, but am totally reading these posts and the links. I’m anxious to read the comments. So much of this resonated with me – so much!

  10. The large spread in “upper class” incomes is the culprit here, by far. Knowing where we fall within that spread, I still feel on the lower end because once we do the things with our money that my parents did on one income (college savings, retirement savings, general savings, life insurance), we do not have the same luxuries that they had on a similar or less (even after converting due to inflation) income when they were our age. I compare more to the life I had growing up than to others around me today. I think the biggest difference is the cost of housing and vehicles. The house I grew up in just sold for $90,000 and the house we live in coats way more than that (and more than my parents current house). Our generation mortgages more in house and car payments than our parents did. I think that’s the crux of my issue. Now, we are getting way lower interest rates (I remember my dad being tried with a mortgage with a 9% rate – 9%!!!!), so maybe I’m totally off here, but I don’t think so.

    Here is what I thought about as I read this. Growing up, “The Cosby Show,” “Full House,” “Growing Pains,” and “Who’s the Boss” represented “middle class” while “Roseanne” was mocked for representing “lower class.”. Knowing what I know today, what I thought were middle class tv families were really upper class, and “Roseanne” was middle class. Oh, how my perspective changed once I was making my own money!

    (My parents don’t help us financially at all. I paid for more of my college than they did – my grandpa paid for 5/6 of it, I paid for 1/6, and my parents paid nothing. The only help I’ve ever gotten once graduated from college was them letting me move home for 2 months when I was jobless – and I had no money at all and they wouldn’t even help me pay for health insurance. Not complaining, but stating. Brian was 100% financially on his own at the age of 14 and paid for his entire education by working while in school – took no loans at all. I think that the way we were released to fend for ourselves probably made us very financially responsible. My dad always said he’d give us wings so we could fly, and he did just that!)

    1. When my parents moved to St Louis in 1984 their mortgage interest rate was 14%!! That’s just unfathomable to me! But in a way it surely helped them stay within their means.

      Really interesting comment about the TV shows growing up. If you look at TV now I definitely think we’re bombarded with images of the super-rich. (On Who’s The Boss, didn’t Angela’s mom, Mona, live in the “guest house?!” Ha! Hardly middle class! But you’re right, at the time we didn’t know any better.)

      1. Yes, and the Cosbys lived in a brownstone in NYC, and the Tanners lived in a row house in San Fran. No wonder our ideas were warped a bit. 😉

        14%! And there was no 10-20% minimum for a down payment, I think they put much more down. I wish requirements were tougher. We follow the 20% or more rule, but some of my friends have done less than 10% down. Wild!

      2. The interest rates are important to consider. They were so crazy high back then, and it would really affect what you could afford. We could never afford our house at that interest rate.

  11. I think I went through a similar trajectory when I realized a few years ago that I am not middle class and actually belong to the upper class based on our combined gross income(we are talking gross income, right?). I think what has always made me feel like I’m middle or even lower-middle class is the way my parents brought me up. My dad had a good job, but my mom didn’t work most of my childhood so it was one income. They ended up putting all of us in private school when I was in 7th grade. That’s where all the money went. We lived in a 1,000 sq-ft house (6 people), our clothes came from Kmart-like stores, and we had one car. Meanwhile, I went to school with kids who got cars for their 16th birthdays, who lived in big houses and always had the trendy clothes.

    It’s hard to shake that picture out of my head, even though, clearly S and I are not in that position.

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