Finance & Economy

What Does 'Middle Class' Really Mean?

NPR’s Kimberly Jones asks, what does it really mean to be middle class in America?
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Kimberly Jones, here. I’m the broadcast recording engineer for Tell Me More. This week, as part of a new series called Living In the Middle, NPR takes a closer look at what it really means to be middle class in the U.S.

I’m somewhere in the center of the middle. Or maybe, I’m on the high side.  Then again, if I lived in an expensive real estate market, I’d be on the low end of the spectrum.

Perhaps my confusion about where I fit in the middle-class spectrum is because the term middle class is such an ambiguous one.  The Census Bureau’s new figure of $50,000 as the median household income in the United States is practically meaningless to me.  I suppose it suggests that if your salary is at least $50K, you're middle class?

The only thing that figure tells me is that half of American households earn less than $50K, and half earn more. But the real significance of household income is impacted by countless factors: geographic location, size of household, and physical health, just to name a few.  So $50,000 might be a fortune in a small town, but a mere pittance in a big city.

What does middle class really mean?

I’ve decided to create my own definition for the term. To me, middle class has much less to do with the actual amount of income one earns, and more to do with the degree to which one can manage the various aspects of life that involve money.  In other words, it’s not about how much you've got, but what you can do with what you've got.

And here's my list of middle-class qualifiers:

If ...

... the rent or mortgage is paid,

... food is in the fridge,

... the lights are on,

... hot and cold water are running,

... living expenses and consumer debt aren't eating you alive,

... you can see a doctor when you're sick — instead of an emergency room,

... you can occasionally enjoy dinner at a "sit down" restaurant,

... then you're safely a card-carrying member of the middle class!

And I suppose the question of where you fit on the spectrum can be answered by how comfortably you can do all of these things.

As obscure as the middle class definition is, it is most fascinating to me how we Americans expend so much energy trying to maintain the appearance of wealth.  We will practically put ourselves in the poor house to buy a big house and fancy car just so that we can put our “middle class-ness” on display.  This is because we attribute wealth to how much nice stuff we can buy.  But like I said, being middle class is less about what you've got, and more about what you do with what you’ve got.

So work with what you’ve got!

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