Who Exactly is the Middle Class?

Periodically listeners want to know what NPR means by the term "middle class." We received a few more calls than usual last week with President Obama's first official State of the Union address.

All Things Considered did a story on January 25 previewing the president's speech and highlighting his focus on helping the middle class:

Robert Siegel: President Obama set his sights today on the middle class. [...] Aides say that will be a key theme for Mr. Obama when he delivers his State of the Union address on Wednesday.

President Obama used the exact phrase "middle class" five times during the more than hour-long speech, most prominently in the following paragraph:

"Now, the price of college tuition is just one of the burdens facing the middle-class. That's why last year I asked Vice President Biden to chair a task force on Middle-Class Families. That's why we're nearly doubling the child care tax credit, and making it easier to save for retirement by giving every worker access to a retirement account and expanding the tax credit for those who start a nest egg. That's why we're working to lift the value of a family's single largest investment — their home. The steps we took last year to shore up the housing market have allowed millions of Americans to take out new loans and save an average of $1,500 on mortgage payments. This year, we will step up re-financing so that homeowners can move into more affordable mortgages. And it is precisely to relieve the burden on middle-class families that we still need health insurance reform."

All this talk of the "middle class" inspired our office to ask Ron Elving, supervising senior Washington editor, for an explanation of NPR's use of the term.

Here's what he had to say:

"The term has no precise meaning or defined parameters. If you took the average per capita income and plugged it into the average family size it would produce a 'middle family income' that would make many Americans feel rich — while others would go into poverty shock.

The Census Bureau says there's no official definition. But it says the trend is toward greater inequality, with the top quintile controlling more of the income and the other quintiles less. The top 5% is taking more income now than a generation or two ago by a lot. So by this measure, something approximating the middle class would seem to be shrinking.

Generally, the long-term trend has been toward increasing income inequality. Since 1969, the share of aggregate household income controlled by the lowest income quintile has decreased from 4.1 percent to 3.6 percent in 1997, while the share to the highest quintile increased from 43.0 percent to 49.4 percent. Most noticeably, the share of income controlled by the top 5 percent of households has increased from 16.6 percent to 21.7 percent.

In British context middle class seems to stand apart from upper class and working class and maybe a lower class (the non-working poor).

In the US, where working class has never really taken hold as a term, it would seem to mean neither rich nor poor. We tend to use it principally as an economic description — and a sloppy one at that — but it obviously has implications in terms of culture, education, tastes, morality and lots of other social characteristics.

I think the great majority of Americans assume they are middle class. You have to be excessively rich or poor before you admit to being anything but middle class. We tend to think being called upper class is rather pejorative, while being called lower class or welfare class is insulting. We sometimes use 'working families' in place of working class.'

Politically, politicians are pretty safe addressing audiences as 'the great middle class' or something like that without offending anyone."

Elving's analysis helps explain why politicians, from the president on down, want to be seen as paying attention to the middle class, however it is defined.

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