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.

Learn what middle-class income means, how this metric is calculated, and 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.

The U.S. Census Bureau found that the 2019 median household income was $68,703. This median income was up from $57,904 in 2010 and from $62,512 in 2000.

Using $68,703 as the base, the Pew definition of middle-class income would include households earning between $45,802 and $137,406.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports mean and median incomes for the previous calendar year every September. These figures were released on Sept. 15, 2020.

How Middle-Class Income Works

The Census Bureau estimated that there were about 128.5 million households in the United States in 2019. 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 2020, the federal poverty level ranges from $12,760 for one person to $44,120 for a household of eight.

The highest income groups roughly correspond to the two highest tax brackets for tax year 2020. These include individuals earning over $518,400, married earning more than $622,050, and heads of household earning over $518,400.

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

Household Income Range Number of Households (Millions) % of Total Notes
Less than $20,000 16.8 13.1% Below or near poverty level
$20,000 - $44,999 25.8 20.0% Low income
$45,000 - $139,999 59.3 46.1% Middle class
$140,000 - $149,999 2.7 2.1% Upper middle class
$150,000 - $199,999 10.6 8.2% High income
$200,000+ 13.2 10.3% Highest tax brackets
Total 128.4 100%  

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 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.

Other Definitions of Middle-Class Income

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich suggests that the middle class should be defined as households making between 50% below and 50% above the median. This would put the middle class in the $34,352 to $103,055 income range, based on the Census median income of $68,703.

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 comprised of 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.

Is Middle-Class Income the Best Measurement?

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.

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% -$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 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 that included housing, transportation, and entertainment. The consumption measure defines the middle class as households that 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.
  • 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.

Article Sources

  1. Pew Research Center. "America’s Shrinking Middle Class: A Close Look at Changes Within Metropolitan Areas." Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  2. U.S. Census Bureau. "HINC-01. Selected Characteristics of Households by Total Money Income," Download Excel Spreadsheet "Household Income in 2019: All Races." Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  3. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Real Median Household Income in the United States." Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  4. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. "2020 Poverty Guidelines." Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  5. IRS. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2020." Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  6. Pew Research Center. "Are You in the American Middle Class? Find Out With Our Income Calculator." Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  7. Moyers on Democracy. "By the Numbers: The Incredibly Shrinking American Middle Class." Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  8. The Brookings Institution. "There Are Many Definitions of 'Middle Class'—Here’s Ours." Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  9. The White House. "Getting the Facts on Tax Cuts." Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  10. U.S. Congress. "H.R.8 - American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012." Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  11. National Bureau of Economic Research. "Household Wealth Trends in the United States, 1962 to 2016: Has Middle-Class Wealth Recovered?" Table 4, Page 46. Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  12. The Brookings Institute. "Defining the Middle Class: Cash, Credentials, or Culture?" Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.