What Is Middle-Class Income?

Definition & Examples of Middle-Class Income

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Middle-class income, or middle-income households, are those with incomes that are two-thirds to double the U.S. median household income, according to the Pew Research Center.

Here, we'll define how middle-class income is defined and explain how this metric is calculated while also discussing which factors (other than income) impact who's considered "middle class."

What Is Middle-Class Income?

Although the U.S. government doesn't have an official definition of middle-class income, the Pew Research Center considers a household income to be "middle-class" if it's between 67% and 200% of the median household income.

This categorizes households as middle-class families if they earned between $42,330 and $126,358 using the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau's median income figure of $63,179. 

This median income is up from $56,873 in 2010 and from $61,399 in 2000.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports mean and median incomes for the previous calendar year every September. These figures were released on Sept. 10, 2019.

How Middle-Class Income Works

The Census Bureau estimated that there were 127.6 million households in the U.S. in 2018. It divided them into six groups as shown in the table below. The Bureau's ranges don't coincide exactly with the Pew definitions, but the numbers are close.

The federal poverty level as of 2019 was:

  • $12,940 for one person
  • $16,910 for two people
  • $21,330 for three people
  • $25,750 for a household of four

The two highest tax brackets as of tax year 2019 are for those earning $204,100 to $510,300, and those earning more than $510,300.

This chart shows how the U.S. Census Bureau breaks down income levels:

Household Income Range Number of Households (Millions) % of Total Notes
Less than $20,000 19.7 15% Below or near poverty level
$20,000 - $44,999 28.7 23% Low income
$45,000 - $139,999 57.7 45% Middle class
$140,000 - $149,999 2.6 2% Upper middle class
$150,000 - $199,999 9.0 7% High income
$200,000+ 9.9 8% Highest tax brackets
Total 127.6 100%  

How Is Middle-Class Income Measured?

Pew starts with the U.S. Census Bureau data on median income per household, then it creates different middle-class standards for each "metropolitan statistical area." These are Census Bureau areas that correspond to cities. The Pew reports 229 of them that add up to 76% of the nation's population.

Pew does this to address discrepancies in the cost of living throughout the nation. For example, housing costs in San Francisco are very high, and a $250,000 household income isn’t upper class. About $65,000 of this income goes toward taxes alone. As a result, a middle-class income in San Francisco is much higher than the national median.

Pew puts the U.S. median income at $74,600, higher than the Census Bureau's number.

CNN provides a middle-class income calculator that will tell you how your household income ranks in your city. It's based on the Pew Research Center's analysis. Pew also developed its own calculator.

How Has the Definition Changed?

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich suggests that the middle class should be defined as households making 50% more or 50% less than the median. This would put the middle class in the $31,590 to $94,768 income range, based on the 2018 Pew standard.

Former President Barack Obama said in 2012 that the middle class is comprised of individuals who make less than $200,000 and couples who make less than $250,000.

Congress quoted its own definition of an annual middle-class income during the fiscal cliff compromise in 2013, indicating that the middle class was anyone making less than $400,000 or couples making less than $450,000. 

The Brookings Institution puts the middle class at the middle 60% of households: from 30% below the median income to 30% above it.

Other Factors That Define the Middle Class

Many experts warn that income isn't the best way to define the middle class. For example, many people who don't have high earned incomes can still afford a high standard of living by living off of their wealth.

To define a class based on wealth, the middle class would be the middle three-fifths of the wealth spectrum. Those with zero wealth or less are in debt. Those in the highest fifth are wealthy. New York University Professor Edward Wolff developed the wealth definition. His research determined that those whose net worth is more than $400,000 are wealthy.

And what about those who don't earn high incomes but spend a lot? They appear to have a middle-class way of life. They may be living off savings, alimony, or government payments that aren't measured as income.

Professor James Sullivan from the University of Notre Dame proposed a consumption-based measure. He included housing, transportation, and entertainment. The consumption measure defines the middle class as those who spend between $38,200 and $49,900 a year.

Key Takeaways

  • Middle-class incomes are those that are two-thirds to double the U.S. median household income, according to the Pew Research Center.
  • That means, in order for a household income to be considered middle class, it must be between 67% and 200% higher than the median household income.
  • When measuring middle-class income, the Pew Research Center relies upon U.S. Census Bureau data to measure median per household.

Article Sources

  1. Pew Research Center. "Are You in the American Middle Class? Find Out With Our Income Calculator." Accessed July 5, 2020.

  2. Pew Research Center. "America’s Shrinking Middle Class: A Close Look at Changes Within Metropolitan Areas." Accessed July 5, 2020.

  3. United States Census Bureau. "Survey Redesigns Make Comparisons to Years Before 2017 Difficult." Accessed July 5, 2020.

  4. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Real Median Household Income in the United States." Accessed July 5, 2020.

  5. United States Census Bureau. "HINC-01. Selected Characteristics of Households by Total Money Income." Accessed July 5, 2020.

  6. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. "2019 Poverty Guidelines." Accessed July 5, 2020.

  7. Tax Foundation. "2019 Tax Brackets." Accessed July 5, 2020.

  8. U.S. Census Bureau. "HINC-01. Selected Characteristics of Households by Total Money Income: All Races." Accessed July 5, 2020.

  9. Pew Research Center. "Trends in Income and Wealth Inequality." Accessed July 5, 2020.

  10. NPR. "Stuck In the Middle (Class) With You." Accessed July 5, 2020.

  11. The Brookings Institution. "There Are Many Definitions of 'Middle Class'—Here’s Ours." Accessed July 5, 2020.

  12. CNN Business. "What Is Middle Class, Anyway?" Accessed July 5, 2020.