A Portrait Of America's Middle Class, By The Numbers For some, "middle class" means never wanting for anything. For others, it means watching your budget. But economists agree that the middle class is shrinking, with more moving up than falling behind.
NPR logo A Portrait Of America's Middle Class, By The Numbers

A Portrait Of America's Middle Class, By The Numbers

What does it mean to be middle class in America?

When All Things Considered's Ari Shapiro asked people in New York City's Times Square, the answers were all over the place.

"You're struggling, like, paycheck to paycheck, and you're going, 'Oh shoot, I want to go into H&M, but you know what, I'll do it next week when I get paid again,' " said Erin Kennedy, a 44-year-old who runs a gym in the Bronx.

Building manager Bob Berger, who's in his 60s, also identifies as middle class, but this New Yorker's experience differs greatly.

"To be middle class means that I never have had to make a budget; I have never wanted for anything," Berger said. "I pretty much did what I wanted."

For many Americans, the middle class is a matter of identity, aspiration and lifestyle as much as it is about wealth. Economists, however, have a pretty clear definition.

"Middle-income" households have an annual income between 66 percent and 200 percent of the median U.S. household income, according to the Pew Research Center. As of 2014, that falls between $24,000 and $73,000 for one person and $42,000 and $126,000 for a family of three.

While the household income needed to be considered part of the middle class has gone up, the number of people who meet that requirement has gone down.

Since economists first began keeping track in 1970, every decade has ended with fewer people in the middle class than at the start. And 2015 was the first year on record when Americans in the middle-income bracket did not make up the majority of the country: that is, those above and below the middle class — rich and poor combined — make up half the population, according to a Pew Research report from December.

But income disparity is on the rise, and the gap has widened in particular between the middle and upper classes. By 2013, families in the upper-income brackets had seven times as much wealth as middle-income families. Compare that to 1983, when the difference was three times as much.

Older Americans and black Americans, meanwhile, are still the least likely to be upper income — and the most likely to be lower income. Between 2000 and 2014, lower-income households suffered the biggest losses — in large part because the Great Recession, from 2007 to 2009, hit those families the hardest.

Not surprising, the distribution of the middle class varies by location and cost of living.

Midland, Texas, is currently home to one of the country's smallest middle-income groups — only 43 percent of the population. That's because so many people have actually gotten richer. In fact, thanks to the oil industry, Midland has the highest percentage of upper-income families in the U.S.: 37 percent.

Compare this to Goldsboro, N.C., where the middle-income group dropped to 48 percent of the population in 2014, from 60 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, its lower-income group grew to 41 percent, up from 27 percent, during the same period.

Nonetheless, the overall trend is upward: The middle class may be shrinking, but two-thirds of those who leave have moved up, while one-third have dropped to a lower income group.

"There is actually more progress than regression," says Rakesh Kochhar, who studies the middle class and is associate director of research at the Pew Research Center.

Although that may be the case, it doesn't feel that way everywhere. For every Fargo, N.D., where the unemployment rate is 3 percent, there's a Flint, Mich., where it's 10 percent.

In the end, the concept of the middle class goes beyond numbers — it's very much a matter of feeling and a state of mind. It's an identity that also can encapsulate certain social and political values, as well as other markers like a college education, white-collar work, economic security or homeownership. In the past century, the material comfort and social meaning of the middle class stood in for many as the quintessential American Dream — even for those who didn't strictly qualify as "middle income."

Correction July 7, 2016

A previous version of the metro area chart incorrectly gave the population of Sheboygan, Wis., as 3,672,113 in 2014. It was actually 114,467, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data.