What Is Considered Middle Class?

Are You in America's Middle Class?

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Middle-class income is between 67 percent and 200 percent of the average median income. That's according to the Pew Research Center. There's no official U.S. government definition of middle-class income, as there is of the federal poverty level.

The average median income is exactly in the middle of the range of incomes. Half of Americans make more and the other half make less. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the average median income was $59,036 per household in 2016.

A household is any group of people who live together. 

Using the Pew Research percentages, that means households making less than $39,554 are low income. Households earning at least $118,072 are high income. 

Current Middle-Class Income Range

What proportion of the 125.8 million U.S. households falls into each income range? The Census Bureau ranges don't coincide exactly with the Pew definitions, but this will give you a general idea. 

The table below shows that 32 percent of households are low income. They earn less than $35,000 a year. They fall within Pew's low-income range of $0-$37,866 per year. Within this low-income group are those who live below the federal poverty line. That means 22 percent of all households earn less than $25,000 a year.

Around 42 percent of households are middle class. They earn between $35,000 and $100,000 a year.

A little more than 26 percent of households earn more than $100,000 a year.

That's similar to the Pew high-income group that makes at least $113,032 annually. The Census Bureau considers high-income households to be the 12.3 percent who earn over $150,000.

Most politicians label high-income households as the 6.1 percent who make over $200,000. Both President Obama and President Trump used $200,000 as the minimum for their high-income tax rates.

These households paid more in Obamacare taxes. They would pay a 33 percent tax rate under Trump's tax plan.

Household Income RangeMillions of HouseholdsPercent of TotalComments
Less than $15,000  14.111.2%Federal poverty level
$15,000 - $24,999  12.1  9.6%
$25,000 - $34,999  11.9  9.4%Low income
$35,000 - $49,999  16.312.9%Middle class
$50,000 - $74,999  21.517.0%Median
$75,000 - $99,999  15.512.3%Middle class
$100,000 - $149,999  17.814.1%Upper middle class and high income
$150,000 - $199,999    8.3  6.6%High income
$200,000+    8.8  7.0%Obama, Trump high income
TOTAL126.3100% 

(Source: "2017 Household Income Survey, Table HINC-01," U.S. Census.)

How the Pew Research Center Measures Middle Class Income

How does Pew determine middle class? It starts with the U.S. Census data on median income per household. (A household is any group of people living together.) Most reports on income also use this measurement.

Pew then created different middle-class standards for each "metropolitan statistical area." These are Census Bureau areas that correspond to cities. The Pew reports use 229 of them that add up to 76 percent of the nation's population.

Why does Pew break the national income averages down by city?

This is because the cost of living varies so much throughout the nation. For example, if you live in San Francisco, a $250,000 household income isn’t upper class. That's because of the cost of living. About $65,000 goes toward taxes alone. It costs $1.5 million to get a house in a decent neighborhood. As a result, a middle-class income in San Francisco is much higher than the national median.

That's why you should look at both national and local income levels before determining if you are middle class. This CNN middle-class income calculator will tell you how you rank in your city. It's based on the Pew Research Center's analysis.

Are You in the Middle Class?

You are in a middle-class household if you earn between $39,554 and $118,072 a year. But those ranges mean different lifestyles depending on the number of people living in the household.

 

That's why Pew Research breaks out middle-class income ranges for individuals, couples, and families. In 2014, individuals were middle class if they earned between $24,173 and $72,521 for individuals. For couples, it was between $34,186 and $102,560 earnings per year. For a family of four related people, it was between $48,347 and $145,014 income per year. Pew Research hasn't yet provided 2015 figures. 

According to a Pew survey, people think they are poorer than they are. Forty percent said they were lower middle-class or poor. Only 32 percent actually are. Forty-four percent of Americans thought they were middle class. Only 16 percent admit to being rich, whereas 26 percent are. 

The Pew survey said Americans feel less affluent than they did before the Great Recession. In 2008, more than half (53 percent) said they were middle class. Only 25 percent said they were poor. 

Reports of living standards in other parts of the world also make Americans feel less rich in comparison. Europeans enjoy six-week vacations. Canadians have free health care. Swedes receive paid time off to care for newborns.

Americans have had fewer raises than in these other countries. That's because U.S. income inequality has gotten worse. Most of the income gains since 2000 have gone to the upper class. It's gotten even worse since the 2008 financial crisis

Alternative Definitions of Middle-Class Income

Robert Reich is a professor of Public Policy at the University of California-Berkeley and former Secretary of Labor. He has suggested the middle class be defined as households making 50 percent higher and lower than the median. He suggests the middle class fall within the $25,000 to $75,000 income range, which is about 50 million families.

Aaron Pacitti, an assistant professor of economics at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., had a different calculation. She said the middle of the middle class earns between $39,764 and $64,582 a year. 

President Obama said that the middle class is individuals who make less than $200,000 and couples who make less than $250,000.  

In 2013, Congress quoted its own definitions of a middle-class income during the fiscal cliff compromise. It said the middle class is anyone making less $400,000 or couples making less than $450,000. 

In 2016, Trump's tax plan provided a new definition of the middle class. It created three tax brackets, one for each class. Middle-class individuals earn between $37,500 and $112,500. Middle-class couples earn between $75,000 and $225,000. Their taxes are cut from 25 percent to 15 percent.

The Census provides median income data for individuals and families as well as households. The income per capita is the U.S. median income divided by the U.S. population. In 2015, it was $30,240. The median family income is for a  group of relatives living together. It was $72,165 in 2015. (Source: "Table 1. Income and Earnings Summary Measures by Selected Characteristics: 2014 and 2015," U.S. Census Bureau.)

Wealth. Many people don't have a high income but still can afford a high standard of living. These include retirees and others who live off of their wealth. To define class based on wealth, the middle class is 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. 

Consumption. What about those who don't earn a high income but spend a lot? They appear to have a middle class way of life. They may be living off of savings, alimony or government payments that aren't measured as income. The consumption measure defines middle class as those who spend between $38,200 and $49,900 a year. Professor James Sullivan from the University of Notre Dame proposed a consumption-based measure. He included housing, transportation and entertainment expenses. He doesn't include investments in the future, such as child care or education. (Source: "What Is Middle Class, Anyway?" CNN Money.)

Aspirations. Many people define the middle class by a set of values rather than financial measures. There’s a certain lifestyle that “feels” middle class to many. It includes the ability to buy a home and at least one car. The middle class should be able to afford college for their children and vacations. They can pay for a decent retirement and health care expenses. (Source: White House Task Force on the Middle Class.)

Middle Class in the Good Old Days?

Many members of the middle class are nostalgic  are nostalgic for the good old days of the 1950s and 1960s. In reality, the middle class was worse off then than it is today. Their homes were 1,200 square feet, on average. They had one car instead of two. There was one television, and it was black and white. There was one phone, and it was a landline. People still felt pressure to keep up with the Joneses, but everyone's standard of living was lower than today.