What Is Considered Middle Class Income?

Is Your Household Part of It?

Middle Class Income Family
•••  Photo by AldoMurrillo / Getty Images

There is no official U.S. government definition of middle-class income, but the Pew Research Center defines it as between 67% and 200% of the median household income. This categorizes households earning between $41,119 and $122,744 in 2017 as middle-class families. That uses the U.S.  median income figure of $61,372 from that same year, as reported by the Census Bureau's September 2018 report. The Census Bureau reports mean and median incomes for the previous calendar year every September.

Income Ranges

The Census Bureau estimated there were 127.6 million U.S. households in 2017. It divided them into the six groups shown in the table below. The Bureau's ranges don't coincide exactly with the Pew definitions, but the numbers are similar.

The federal poverty level as of 2019 is $12,940 for one person, $16,910 for two people, $21,330 for three people, and $25,750 for a household of four. As of the tax year 2019, the highest tax brackets are for those earning $200,000–$500,000 and those earning more than $500,000.

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

Household Income RangeMillions of Households% of TotalComments
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

Source: "Table HINC-01, 2018 Household Income Survey, " U.S. Census.

How the Pew Research Center Measures Middle-Class Income

Pew starts with the U.S. Census Bureau data on median income per household, then creates 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% 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 goes toward taxes alone. 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 city. It's based on the Pew Research Center's analysis. Pew also developed its own calculator.

According to a Pew survey, people thought they were poorer than they were. Around 40% said they were lower middle-class or poor when only 32% actually were. Another 44% thought they were middle class. Only 16% admitted to being rich when the actual number was 26%. The Pew survey said Americans felt less affluent than they did before the Great Recession. In 2008, more than half said they were middle class, and only 25% said they were poor.

Other Definitions of Middle-Class Income

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich suggests that the middle class be defined as households making 50% more or less than the median, which would put the middle class in the $25,000–$75,000 income range, where there are about 50 million families.

President Barack Obama said that the middle class is comprised of individuals who make less than $200,000 and couples who make less than $250,000. In 2013, Congress quoted its own definition 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. 

Other Factors

Many experts warn that income is not the best way to define the middle class. For example, many people don't have a high income but they still can afford a high standard of living by living off of their wealth. To define a 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.

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 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.