But isn’t it crazy to talk so much about the so-called middle class without having even the haziest definition of what we mean? Shouldn’t we define our terms? I think it would be useful if the government would come up with a clear definition.
If you aren’t doing as well as you’d like, but you aren’t dirt poor, you might be a member of the Muddle Class.
Just about everybody claims to be a member of the middle class, and politicians like to define almost everyone as the middle class. But the middle class is a muddle.
We know what poor is. The federal government defines an individual living on just a bit more than $11,000 per year as officially below the poverty line. Many of us would consider a person earning around twice that amount as relatively poor, assuming that was his or her only income.
We agree less on what constitutes wealth. The proposal to increase taxes on single people making more than $200,000 a year drew many indignant protests from people in that income bracket claiming they are not, in fact, wealthy at all –– even though the median household income, according to the U.S. Census, is a little more than $50,000.
So who are these middle-class folks to whom politicians so love to pander? It isn’t people making $11,000. It isn’t people making $200,000 per year, either, despite their protests to the contrary.
I’d peg it, for a single person, as starting somewhere around $30,000 and topping out somewhere around $100,000. But it also depends on other factors besides one’s personal income, like whether one was lucky enough to have some family money to fall back on or a high-earning spouse.
And while these figures sound right to me, everybody has their own mental idea of what is middle class. I suspect it depends greatly on where one falls in the income distribution continuum –– the better-off one is, the higher one’s definition of wealthy tends to be. Essentially, nobody except Donald Trump will actually admit to being too rich to qualify as middle class.
But isn’t it crazy to talk so much about the so-called middle class without having even the haziest definition of what we mean? Shouldn’t we define our terms?
I think it would be useful if the government would come up with a clear definition, perhaps using the quintile system already used by the Census Bureau. For an explanation, see http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/data/inequality/middleclass.html
That would allow a little more precision and a more honest political debate about how we want to set up our tax code.
It’s true that about half of Americans don’t pay any income taxes (though they do contribute by paying plenty of other kinds of taxes), but that’s because they have such low incomes. You cannot get blood from a turnip.
It’s also true that part of the reason income distribution is increasing is that more people live alone — two people making $30,000 each but sharing a mortgage payment live a lot better than two singletons with the same individual income.
Still, the income gap is real, and it’s increasing, and if we are honest with ourselves, we all know the middle class is in real trouble. The American way of life cannot survive without a strong middle class.
America is not supposed to consist of a lot of poor people who make too little to pay income taxes and a small number of wealthy people who pay some of the lowest federal income taxes in history. (Really. Look up the old rates at the nonpartisan taxfoundation.org.)
But I don’t see how we think we can possibly fix the multiple problems plaguing the middle class if we cannot even define it.
Editor Michelle Teheux may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.