Like the 3 Bears, the Middle Class is Not too Rich Not too...

Are You Middle Class?

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Dec 16, 2010    •    701 Views

What is the “middle class?”

In a recent NPR interview, a painting contractor, an employee of Healthy Montana Kids, a man who runs a hi-tech robotic firm, and a hospice worker, all earning between $25,000 and $100,000 annually, said they were middle class.

Sort of like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” most Americans prefer identifying themselves as the middle class: “They don’t want to seem {too} poor, they don’t want to seem {too}rich-they want to seem like everyone else.” Why? Probably because middle class means more than income. Also, it connects to our values, our aspirations, our education, our jobs.

In a wonderful column, David Brooks identifies “middle class” as the key to our American identity. But then, he asks, as the rest of the world becomes more like us through a gigantic global middle class, how will we perpetuate our leadership and distinct identity? The answer, he says, are our middle class values. Our middle class values fuel our achievement, our innovation, and our sense of community that everyday activities like Little League embody. While Brooks cites Ben Franklin as a model, I like to remember that John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony said we can be, “A city on a hill.”

Still though, who are politicians targeting when they say they care about tax legislation that benefits the middle class? Maybe, according to one NY Times blog… People who are “too poor to be rich; too rich to be poor.”

The Economic Lesson

Income is one variable consistently used to define middle class. In the U.S., our national income comes from wages and salaries, rent, interest, and dividends, and profits from businesses that are not incorporated.

To picture our income distribution, please think of a pie as the total national income and then individual slices as the proportion that different groups receive. That would mean that if total national income were $1,000 and a society had only five households (people living together), then if every household earned $200, distribution was equal. By contrast, if one family earned $800, then, because $200 remained for everyone else, there would be considerable inequality. Recently, the top quintile of households in the U.S. earned close to 50% of all income. This quintile approach for representing income distribution was developed by statistician Max Lorenz. 

Still though, we are left with the issue of extracting the middle class from a Lorenz curve.


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