Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Another Stab at Defining the Middle Class

"There is no official government definition of who belongs to the middle class," notes the Congressional Research Service report, The Distribution of Household Income and the Middle Class (PDF)Because Congress frequently legislates for the middle class, however, defining the middle class becomes important.

According to the report, the middle class can be defined either absolutely (a specific income level) or relatively (compared to others). In absolute terms, studies show the middle class to be broad indeed. Americans identify themselves as middle class at household income levels ranging from about the middle of the third income quintile (or between $38,521 and $62,434) well into the top income quintile ($101,583 or more).

Relative income--or how people feel about their income--may be the more important determinant of middle class well-being. "Having incomes far above those at the lower end of the income distribution is a source of satisfaction to the middle class," notes the report. "But when those at the upper end of the distribution fare much better than they do, it can be a source of consternation to the middle class." As the rich have gotten richer, the middle class has been feeling poorer--a recipe for political turmoil and social unrest.

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