The Muddle About the Middle Class

The United States has no monetary standard for defining the “middle class”

(January 2000) To some, the middle class is the middle section — the middle 60 percent — of the U.S. household income distribution. By this definition, an estimated 165 million people lived in middle-class households in 1998. (The “upper class,” according to this definition, would be the top 20 percent; the “lower class” would be the bottom 20 percent.)

However, these 165 million people lived in households with incomes that ranged between $16,117 and $75,000 in 1998, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, the official poverty threshold for an average family of four in 1998 was $16,660 — $543 greater than the lower income limit of the middle 60 percent of the income distribution.

Family composition and size determine federal poverty thresholds, so they are lower for small families and higher for large families. (For example, a family of one adult and one child was considered poor if it made less than $11,234 in 1998, while a family of two adults and five children was considered poor if it made less than $24,395.) Most likely, some of the people in the middle class would have been considered poor under the official poverty definition.

A more refined definition of middle class — one that gets around this dilemma — focuses on the relationship between family income and the poverty level. That is the approach the Federal Interagency Forum for Child and Family Statistics takes in its annual report, America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Child Well-Being. When analyzing the family income of children, it defines “medium income” children as those living in families with incomes between 200 percent and 399 percent of the official poverty threshold (between $33,320 and $66,639 for a family of four). Using the “200 percent to 399 percent of poverty” standard, about 88 million Americans — 33 percent of all people for whom poverty status is determined — lived in families that could be classified as middle class.

Although this definition is useful in determining the size of the American middle class, it has some drawbacks. Many, if not most, Americans define middle class in lifestyle terms, including anyone with enough income to afford the items that produce a middle-class lifestyle — a home, a car, a television, major appliances, air conditioning, and other conveniences. In addition, the official poverty standard does not account for geographic variation in the cost of living. For example, the median price of an existing single-family home in 1998 in San Francisco was $321,700; in Peoria, Ill., it was $83,300.

… But “Over the Hill” Is Clear

People don’t like to think of themselves as being “over the hill.” But all the term means, technically, is that a person has passed the halfway mark of his or her life expectancy. According to 1997 life tables produced by the National Center for Health Statistics, the halfway mark for males would be 38 years. For females, it’s 40.5.