A friend asked me this question, here is what I mailed him.
There is no way to say for sure “who is in the middle class.” Here are a couple of answers I give when I am asked this question, largely from a set of studies done by the Pew Research Center.
- If you mean middle class by income, the middle fifth of the income distribution — those within 10% of median income of $56,516 when ranking families from lowest to highest — is approximately between $43,000 and $72,000. If you were to take the group of people living between 2/3rds of the median income to about twice the median income, that share of the population has fallen from 61% in 1971 to 50% today. Both the upper and lower tiers have grown.
- A recent Pew Survey, says most Americans feel you need to have a job and be able to save money to be part of the middle class. But another survey says 47% of Americans say that, if they were confronted with an unexpected expense of $400, they would either have to borrow the money or sell something to pay for it. That is, they didn’t have $400 in readily available savings. Does this mean those 47% are not part of the middle class? That would have to include some portion of the 50% I mentioned in the first point. The Pew survey also said that less than half of Americans think you need a college education or to own your own home, or to be able to afford a vacation. It really does seem people look at this as an income measure.