Who exactly is “middle class” in the U.S.?


Can you afford a house? We can’t. Not anywhere near where we live….Maybe this is why I enjoy reading about others’.


By Caitlin Kelly

And, another hate read from The New York Times, somehow insisting that an annual income of $100,000 to $200,000, even $400,000 (!) or more means “middle class”:

This is the introduction, while the story focuses on seven families, with only one single man.

Being middle class in America used to come with a certain amount of leisure and economic security. Today it involves an endless series of trade-offs and creative workarounds, career reinventions and an inescapable sense of dread.

We asked readers to tell us what it’s like, and more than 500 people, with widely varied incomes, submitted responses. They described not just their financial worries but also he texture of daily life. Even those with very good incomes expressed fears of instability. They have seen their wages and bargaining power stagnate and wealth spiral to the top, while they struggle to acquire the markers of middle-class life — a college education, health care, the deed to a home.

As one reader, Kristin DePue, put it, “There is an extraordinary burden on my generation to fund our own retirement and also afford college costs for our children.” Indeed, “middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was 20 years ago,” the journalist Alissa Quart writes in “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.” And yet, for all the talk of “everyday Americans” among the presidential candidates, politicians do not seem to understand what it takes to get through the day, or what would really help.




Georgetown, DC. Pricey but lovely

A few thoughts:


— No American — unlike some Britons who will proudly say they are “working class” — will use that language to describe oneself, even if it’s true. There are so many euphemisms for poor: broke, impoverished, low-income, underprivileged, each of which is vague and subjective. One man’s “broke” is another man’s notion of luxury.

— Many factors affect how far one can stretch a budget: housing, health insurance (if you’re on Medicare or Medicaid, free), educational costs, number of children, etc. If you’ve chosen to raise a child, or many children, that’s an assumed cost bringing many additional costs with it: food, clothing, medical care, etc. Plus childcare!

— Some areas of the country are brutally and punitively expensive for housing and if, for reasons of employment, health and/or reliable family support you can’t leave, that cost alone is going skew what you need to survive.

— If you have multiple children and every one of them attends a private university or college, let alone graduate or professional school, it will cost a fortune. Yet it remains a very loaded and un-American idea to suggest trade school or vocational training instead, even though many such workers, unionized, make very good incomes, have plenty of work life-long and tremendous pride in their skills.

— This story generated 1,358 comments (that’s a lot for the Times), as “class” is a loaded word for Americans, raised from birth on the “American dream” of social mobility.

Here’s one of them:

The median household income is $59,000 per year. All of these people in the article are far above that, but they are still struggling to afford basic things like education for their children because life is very expensive. Imagine what a family making $25,000 is going through, trying to send children to college. Everyone that is thinking about this election needs to realize that the real middle of the country is hurting. All of our security has been turned to risk, and the billionaires pay themselves as if they carry the risk, instead of us. The corporate establishment “center” has completely discredited itself, by telling us how great the economic numbers are, how “free trade” has really been great, and that there “is no money,” for the things that most people need, because, according to the owners of capital and the media they own, the only way for capitalism to work is for their corporations to get fat, no-bid, cost-plus contracts, while those same corporations have their taxes cut to zero.

Jose and I live in a suburb of New York City, in a one-bedroom apartment. Our monthly housing cost is $2,000, health insurance $1,700, various other insurances another $400+. Add food, gas, the $95 cost of a 10-trip off-peak train trip into New York City for work or pleasure, parking, dental, etc.

In our good years, we make just over six figures, as full-time freelancers — i.e. wholly self-employed; in bad years, we have had to tap our retirement savings (and thank heaven we have some.)

That, for many people, is a fortune!

But our combined income can also disappear at any moment without warning if one of our clients cuts their budget or management changes. We have no paid time off or paid sick leave.

At this point, effectively shut out of any full-time job (that would cut $20,000 a year in costs with job-supplied health insurance) by age discrimination, we are OK, partly because we have no children or dependents, and have stayed in this home for decades, driving a 20 year old vehicle.


How about you?


Where do you fit?

9 thoughts on “Who exactly is “middle class” in the U.S.?

  1. The US is quite different from us on all of this – we are a lot more secure. But there are expensive cities here too – Vancouver in particular and BC generally. One thing I chose to do was move. I maintain my residence in the Okanagan but I work in the north and this has placed me in the top 10% of the country’s earners. But, this hadn’t made me “wealthy.” It will provide for a comfortable retirement in about three years though. Sometimes, we have to make the hard decisions, and moving was mine.
    Good article. 🙂

    1. For sure…

      I am completely out of luck now to move back anywhere near Toronto — where all my friends are (and the same for Jose in Santa Fe)….I can’t bear the idea of my ENTIRE life sharing walls and condo rules. UGH. But I also know truly rural life isn’t a good fit for me….so we have to see what might be possible. I really long for a private house…I wonder if buying some acres and a prefab box is going to be our only option. Nova Scotia is super cheap….not sure.


  2. Salaries are considerably lower in France, but many perks compensate for that: excellent and comprehensive health care (this includes dental and free glasses every 2 years), I think I pay 45 euros a month, my employer pays the rest; 5 to 7 paid weeks’ annual vacation; 50% of your monthly bus-subway pass paid for by the employer; subsidized staff cantines and gym; travel vouchers worth 450 euros, and other benefits.

    I do not own a car.

    I’m the same age as you and I’ve never owned real estate, I live in a rental micro-apartment that costs just under 700 euros a month. My mother bequeathed her house to me in her will, but my sister stole it from me. It was on Ravine Drive in Port Hope, Ontario (google it). Today that house is worth 600K. After our mother died, my sister stole other things from me (it’s all in my memoir). I could have been a very well-off woman had this not occurred. As it is, I need to work until I’m 67 in order to receive a full pension (which won’t be a heck of a lot.)

    This doesn’t bother me because I like working, I like my job and my colleagues, so I’m lucky in that sense. But my salary is quite low compared to American salaries.

    Where do I fit? My salary is the national average. I regret not marrying and not buying real estate back in the 1990s.

    1. I am so sorry about your sister. What a shitshow. Port Hope is stunning, so I totally know what a loss that is. My father lived there for 4 years and doubled (!) his housing investment.

      No question that marrying has allowed me/us to save for retirement and to balance out our investment strategies; I take some risk and get growth of 10%+ annually (of late) and he is much more conservative with his amount, three times mine. It’s all ours, but we agree to manage it differently.

      I would be RICH as hell if I had bought Toronto real estate, too. But even then bully bids from dual income couples made it impossible.

      I fully expect some ugliness when my father dies and leaves his estate to his children “equally” — 4 adults, one of whom I have never met, one who hates me and one who is a millionaire already.

      We have to get to 70 for the full SS payout and that is not going to happen. Journalism is a disaster area now and every month is a struggle to find enough paid work…I cannot imagine another 8 years of that!

  3. I guess I’m middle class, but I’m single, have a decent job and very few things tying me down. I’m pretty lucky in that respect. I know a lot of other people have it worse than me, and it’s a shame we’re not doing more for them.

  4. TaddCW

    Morning, Caitlin,

    Let me suggest a slightly different angle. It’s not just the notion of middle class that is problematic, but the notion of upper class. Is someone (or a household) who is a single-digit millionaire upper class? Particularly if most of that net worth is tied up in primary residence real estate and 401(k)? That person or unit can weather short-term storms, but still has serious exposure to prolonged unemployment or a serious medical situation. Paying for college is probably the biggest liability concern. And (as Peter Thiel memorably pointed out), this person or unit really doesn’t have access to the elite legal profession. But to lump them in the same class as people with 10, 100, or 1000 times the net worth – because wealth at the high-end is more meaningfully described by a log curve, not percentiles – obscures major differences, opportunities, anxieties, etc.

    It also touches politics, particularly for the blue team. The excesses of the 0.1% (or 0.01%) get pilloried. Rhetoric and policymaking focus on the 1-2%. The heaviest marginal impact lands on the 2-5% or 2-10%.

    Great discussion!

    1. That 401(k() — if full of $$$$ — is accessible.

      Yes, you’ll take a penalty and tax hit but tant pis! I think anyone with so many assets (even if illiquid) is in far far better shape than so many millions who have not been able to acquire (?!) any savings at all — whether because of low wages, illness, chid-rearing/caregiving, medical debt.

      We have hit our IRAs when needed, and didn’t want to but at least had them.

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