What Is Middle-Class Income?

Middle-Class Income Explained in Less Than 4 Minutes

who is the middle class? Those that are two-thirds to double the U.S. median household income, according to the Pew Research Center; In 2019, the median household income was $68,703, including households earning between $45,802 and $137,406; There are many definitions of middle-class income; Some experts argue that wealth and consumption are better measure of middle class

The Balance / Julie Bang

Middle-class income, or the income of middle-class households, is generally incomes that range between two-thirds and double the U.S. median household income, according to the Pew Research Center.

Learn what middle-class income means, how it is determined, and which factors other than income affect who's considered "middle class."

Definition and Examples of 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 "middle-income" if it's between 67% and 200% of the median household income.

The U.S. Census Bureau found that the 2020 median household income was $67,521. This median income decreased 2.9% from 2019 when the median income was $69,560. For comparison, the median was $58,627 in 2010 and $63,292 in 2000 (calculated in 2020-adjusted dollars).

Using $67,521 as the base, the Pew definition of middle income would include households earning between $45,239 and $135,042.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports mean and median incomes for the previous calendar year every September. These figures were released on Sept. 14, 2021.

How Middle-Class Income Works

The Census Bureau estimated that there were about 130 million households in the United States in 2020. They can be divided into groups that correspond to the Pew definitions of the middle class.

The lowest-income groups are within range of the federal poverty level. As of 2021, the federal poverty level ranges from $12,880 for one person to $44,660 for a household of eight.

The highest income groups roughly correspond to the highest tax brackets for the tax year 2021. These include individuals earning over $523,600, married earning more than $628,300, and heads of household earning over $523,600. (For 2022, they'll include singles making more than $539,900, married making more than $647,850, and heads of household making more than $539,900.)

This chart shows the breakdown of 2020 income levels using Census data:

Household Income Range Number of Households (Millions) % of Total Notes
Less than $20,000 17.9 14% Below or near poverty level
$20,000 - $44,999 26.5 20% Low income
$45,000 - $139,999 59 45% Middle class
$140,000 - $149,999 2.9 2% Upper middle class
$150,000 - $199,999 10.4 8% High income
$200,000+ 13.3 10% Highest tax brackets
Total 130  

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 260 of the 384 metropolitan areas.

Pew does this to address discrepancies in the cost of living throughout the nation. For example, housing costs and taxes in San Francisco are very high. As a result, a middle-class income in San Francisco is much higher than the national median.

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

Alternatives to Middle-Class Income

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich suggested that the middle class should be defined as households with income levels ranging from 50% below the median to 50% above it. This would place the middle class between $33,761 to $101,281, based on the Census median income of $67,521.

The Brookings Institution defines the middle class as the middle 60% of households. In other words, everyone from 30% below the median income to 30% above it.

Former President Barack Obama said in 2012 that the middle class is occupied by families who make less than $250,000. He said this to support an extension of the Bush tax cuts to the middle class only. He did not want those who earned more to receive the tax cut extension.

Congress had a higher definition of the middle class. The American Taxpayer Relief Act extended the tax cuts to anyone making less than $400,000 or couples making less than $450,000.

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 drawing from high-value retirement funds, investments, or family fortunes.

Similar to measuring middle-class income, middle-class wealth would be the middle three-fifths of the spectrum. Those with zero wealth or less are in debt, while those in the highest fifth are considered wealthy. 

Here's a 2016 breakout:

Quintile Mean Net Worth
Bottom 40% (two quintiles) -$8,900
Third Lowest 20% $81,700
Middle 20% $273,600
Top 20% $2,999,000

And what about those who don't earn high incomes but spend a lot? They may appear to have a middle-class way of life and live 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 that included housing, transportation, and entertainment. The consumption measure defined the middle class as households that spend between $38,200 and $49,900 a year.

Key Takeaways

  • According to the Pew Research Center, middle-class incomes are generally from two-thirds to double the U.S. median household income.
  • There are other definitions of middle-class income, depending on the source.
  • Some experts say wealth or consumption are better measures of the middle class.