For some people, the middle class is all about being hardworking, thrifty and humble. Others believe that to be middle-class, you must earn enough money to be well-off but not enough money to be considered rich. According to new data from Northwestern Mutual’s 2018 Planning and Progress Study, nearly 70 percent of Americans believe themselves to be part of the middle class. But, because of the fuzziness of the label, far more consider themselves to be middle class than actually are.
Despite 70 percent of Americans believing that they are middle class, findings show that 20 percent are wrong. The middle class makes up just more than 50 percent of the U.S. total population, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center. This is down from 61 percent in 1971.
Between 1971 and 2011, the share of adults in the middle class fell by 10 percent, but since 2011, Pew reports, the middle class has remained relatively stable instead of continuing to shrink.
The definition of the middle class, according to Pew, is those whose annual household income is two-thirds to double that of the national median, which was $57,617 as of 2016. By that definition, a middle-income, three-person household earns about $45,000 to $135,000, depending on where you live. If you’re single, a salary of around $26,000 to $78,000 qualifies you as middle-income.
Mistakes in calculation
Northwestern Mutual’s survey participants were nearly unanimous in saying that “middle-class” means you must make a certain amount of money, but the amount they said you need to qualify is slightly off from the official numbers. Slightly more than 50 percent pegged a middle-income annual salary at somewhere between $50,000 and $99,000. Another 20 percent wrongly estimated that $100,000 to $499,000 was more accurately the middle-class annual earning. The remaining 29 percent are part of the lower class.
Between middle and upper
Not only is the middle class not catching up to the upper class in terms of wealth, but the earnings gap between the two is expanding. In the same survey from Northwestern Mutual, 40 percent of respondents said that upward mobility from the middle class to the upper class was the absolute hardest to attain.
“Although the wealth of upper-income families has more than recovered from the losses experienced during the Great Recession, the wealth of lower- and middle-income families in 2016 was comparable to 1989 levels,” Pew reported. “Thus, even as the American middle class appears not to be shrinking (for now), it continues to fall further behind upper-income households financially, mirroring the long-running rise in income inequality in the U.S. overall.”
While it is true that the middle class is shrinking and that it is harder than ever for middle-class Americans to move upward, Pew has offered something that is easy: An income calculator to tell you where you fall on the economic ladder. All you do is plug in the state and area of the state where you live, your household income and the number of people in your household and voila, you will know where you stand.
Have something to add to this story? Comment below or join the discussion on Facebook.
Header image: ShutterStock