It started almost a year and a half ago, when my husband’s health insurance coverage kicked in. With that massive expense covered, we had finally arrived at the financial reality of our lives. Before that we were always in a transition of some kind: my husband finding a new job, maternity leave (without pay), working 80% to be home more after the second kid, purchasing our family’s health insurance out-of-pocket (to the tune of $2.5K A MONTH). When my husband’s coverage FINALLY kicked in, we were both earning as much money as we could expect to make for the foreseeable future. We had arrived. And yet, we were still living month to month, still watching the reimbursements from our tax sheltered child care account, and even most of our tax refund, going to unexpected home renovations or paying for our homeowners insurance when it came due. We didn’t feel we could put as much as we wanted into retirement and still pay the bills, and we weren’t putting anything aside for our kids’ college funds, let alone into savings.
I didn’t understand it: How could we barely be making ends meet? We had jobs that paid decent salaries. We were paying the mortgage on a modest house in a not-so-great part of town. We didn’t go on vacation. We didn’t buy extravagant things. Shouldn’t things be… easier? There was such a massive disconnect between the life I had expected and the reality of our financial situation, and every time I tried to investigate what might explain that disconnect, I came back to one thing: the idea of the middle class. I identified as being middle class, upper middle class even–and with two advanced degrees!–and I seemed to believe that along with my membership in that class, I had been promised a certain quality of life. And I didn’t expect we’d have to struggle so much to barely maintain it.
I grew up assuming I was middle class. Besides our stint abroad, our childhood seemed very “normal.” We had a nice house, two cars, we attended public schools, we were told we could attend state colleges or universities (without taking on debt), we took vacations, and we didn’t seem to think about money. It wasn’t until I was a senior in college and my father had been out of a job for over a year that my parents denied me something because of a lack of money: I was to graduate on time or foot the bill for anything I took in my fifth year. I promptly abandoned my Spanish minor and graduated in four years (quite a few of my friends went on to be “super seniors”).
I vaguely remember a conversation with my husband, early in our relationship, in which I asserted that my parents were, indeed, middle class, after he suggested we were actually better off than that. Even then I was protective of my inclusion in the “middle class” club. I bristled at the idea that we had more than most people; in my mind we were the same as everybody else. And I suppose that was true, because everyone around us was upper middle class–or better off–just like we were.
I believed I grew up middle class, and continued to be middle class, until this past year when I started googling the term to see what exactly the middle class was. While I’m still not clear on exactly who can claim ownership in the middlc class–no one is!–I’m pretty sure most people would not consider me a member. It seems, I am irked to say, that I am solidly upper class.
How can that be? How can a family that struggles to make ends meet, and isn’t saving, be upper class? Well first, let’s look at the numbers.
The range of incomes that delineate the middle class is not widely agreed upon. Some economists consider those making the middle 50% of incomes to be middle class. Others determine that those who make +/- 50% of the median income are middle class. The numbers I saw referenced most widely were provided by Pew Center Research, which performed a study on the middle class using government data in late 2015. Their income range of two thirds to two-times the national income median provided a spectrum of $46,960 – $140,900 a year for a four person household.
We are a family of four, and we make around $175,000 a year–we fall well outside that range. But we also live an area with a very high cost of living. Surely in San Francisco, where the median price for a home is $1.1 million, we are considered middle class. Well, CNN Money’s Middle Class calculator doesn’t think so. When I plugged in our salary and county (San Francisco city and county comprise the same area), I was informed that the upper threshold was $153,866. Even in the crazy expensive city of San Francisco, I’m still not considered middle class, at least not when it comes to how much I make.
Of course, income is not the only way to determine who is middle class. In fact, there are many economists who argue it is not the best indicator, because it fluctuates so much over a lifetime. For some economists, wealth is seen as a better indicator of economic status, as it takes into consideration inheritance or trusts that aren’t recorded on your W-2. An article at CNN Money presented one economist’s range –those that fall in the middle three fifths of the wealth spectrum (0$ to $401,000)–as being middle class; the lower fifth are in debt and the highest fifth are considered wealthy. While the article does not explain how to determine one’s “wealth,” I’m assuming a mortgage does not count as “debt” since it is a secured debt (my house is an asset held as collateral by the bank). If that is the case, we fall on somewhere in the range of middle class, as we have no unsecured debt, but no where near $400K in savings.
That same article presented three other ways that economists and federal agencies determine the middle class: consumption, aspiration and demographics. The aspirations of the middle class (illustrated in a cute little infographic)–home ownership, car, retirement security, family vacations, and college education for the kids–definitely encapsulates my understanding of the middle class, but I think it is less helpful in differentiating the middle and upper classes than it is the lower and middle classes.
I found the demographics section, which combines sociology and economics, most interesting. This infographic used age, education and race to determine if you are middle class by sending you through a series of yes/no questions until you finally end up in one of three categories: stragglers, middle class and thrivers. The most interesting part was there was no race distinction for people under 39. and both the White/Asian–Over 39 demographics who finished college were considered “thrivers,” (and those groups didn’t need to finish college to be considered middle class), while “any race” under 39 who finished college weren’t considered “thrivers,” but instead where deemed “middle class.” Sadly, those under 39 who didn’t finish college were delegated to the ranks of “stragglers.” According to “demographics” I am middle class, though I wonder if our post-graduate degrees (which were not accounted for in the infographic) would have pushed us into the “thrivers” category.
So, am I middle class? Probably not, but I’m still not sure. And the more articles I read, the more I realized that no one else is either.
So, why is it so hard to define the middle class? More on that tomorrow…
Does seeing the actual numbers ($46,960 – $140,900 a year for a family of four) change how you view your membership in the middle class? Does that range surprise you?