The New York Times
By: Catherine Rampell
August 23, 2012
Who counts as middle class?
As I've written before, Americans don't have a great sense of where they fall in the income distribution, or even what the income distribution actually looks like. Now, in a new report, the Pew Research Center has given us an update on the types of Americans most likely to call themselves middle class, and the answer doesn't necessarily have a lot to do whether respondents earn close to the median income.
As you can see, about half of adults surveyed said they were middle class. That includes almost half of respondents who had family incomes above $100,000, which is technically at about the 82nd percentile in the income distribution.
There were other signs of cognitive dissonance about this topic.
Survey respondents who called themselves middle class were asked how much they believed a family of four needed to earn to maintain a "middle-class lifestyle." The median response they named was $70,000, though the response varied based on how much money the respondent himself or herself made.
Self-proclaimed members of the middle class who had family incomes below $30,000, for example, said that a family needed to earn at least $40,000 to lead a middle-class lifestyle -- even though that would disqualify themselves. Likewise, "middle-class" respondents who earned from $30,000 to $49,999 said the lifestyle required an annual income of at least $60,000.
People with family incomes of $50,000 to $99,999 gave a median response of $75,000 -- so, pretty close to what they currently make.
The richest people to call themselves middle class, those earning at least $100,000, dictated that a middle-class lifestyle requires bringing in at least $100,000 a year.
At least they're consistent about what they define as middle class, even if the threshold they name is actually much higher in the income distribution than the word "middle" would imply.
People with more education also had higher expectations of how much money a family would need to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, probably reflecting the fact that college graduates generally earn more money than their counterparts without degrees.
As you can see in the table to the right, responses to this question varied by location as well.
Respondents in the East said that a family would need $85,000 to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, for example, perhaps reflecting the fact that the cost of living in some of the states in the East is higher than that elsewhere in the country.
Addendum on methodology: The survey was conducted from July 16 to 26 by telephone with a nationally representative sample of 2,508 adults living in the United States. The statistical results were weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the final, weighted numbers is plus or minus 3 percentage points.