What Does 'Middle Class' Even Mean?

The gap between the richest and poorest in the U.S. is so wide that more Americans have started to assign themselves to lower socioeconomic groups.

Keith Bedford / Reuters

If you had to place yourself in a socioeconomic class, where would you land? That’s a tricky and personal question for most Americans. Education, income, and even parental wealth can all factor into class status, but the borders of each group can still be hard to parse. That’s because socioeconomic class structure in the U.S. is a nebulous thing that can be as much about perception and comparison as it is about measurable metrics, like money.

One of the more common methods for identifying the "middle class" is to simply define it as the half of the population making more than the bottom quarter and less than the top quarter. In 2013, such rankings would consider households with income between about $24,000 to $90,000 middle class, based on data from the Survey of Consumer Finances. With a more comprehensive wealth measure—taking into consideration not only income, but total assets and liabilities—this middle 50 percent of Americans covers an enormous range: families who have anywhere between about $9,000 to $317,000. Which is pretty crazy given the vastly different realities of families on either end of those spectrums.

In recent decades, researchers have started to incorporate more subjective and relative analysis into the question of class, asking people where they feel they fit in rather than assigning them to a group based on finances and education. Their responses are telling, providing a portrait of how Americans feel about the country's health and their own personal futures.

According to a recent survey from Gallup, about 51 percent of Americans consider themselves middle or upper-middle class, while 48 percent consider themselves working or lower class. That’s the highest share to identify themselves as being on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder since Gallup began gathering such data in 2000, and a big drop-off from earlier periods, when as much as 63 percent of respondents considered themselves to be middle class.

Class Self-Identification

The results are unsurprising, according to Paul Piff, an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at U.C. Irvine who studies socioeconomic status and inequality. “When inequality is severe the relative differences between you and other people become severe,” he says. “I think that with the rise in inequality post-recession, differences in where you think you are relative to others have been exacerbated as well.”

The shift is likely less about a downward economic trend than it is about feelings of runaway inequality. “What might be happening is that people are thinking about the state of our society and the divisions between people's levels of wealth,” according to Michael Kraus an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. He says that some theories suggest that as a country grows more unequal, the tendency for its citizens to compare themselves to each other may increase. For those who view themselves at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale it could lead to things like political and civic disengagement, among other problems. Kraus says that perceptions of how the country functions outside of economics may also play a role in how class is perceived. “There's been murdering of black people by the state that's been publicized over the last year. That's giving people information that society is not treating them well.” Kraus says that the shift in how people perceive their class may well be temporary, and if it isn’t it might be less about economic changes in their lives and more about their perception about changes in society.

Piff believes feelings of inequality and class division aren't going away anytime soon, and that could leave more Americans viewing themselves as falling out of the middle class, which is ultimately bad for the country. “That's hugely problematic because it has implications for people's perceptions of social mobility,” Piff said. “The lower you are the less likely you are to feel like you have control over the things that really matter in your life. The less freedom you think you have, the less ability you think you have to change your own life outcomes.”