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What is the universally accepted definition of the "middle class?"

Following the U.S. presidential campaign, I am struck by the way both the Republicans and the Democrats claim to represent and be concerned about the "middle class" without ever defining who belongs to that prized group. The result is that everyone regards themselves as "middle class," as if it is somehow "lower class" to be part of some lesser-regarded group. It's easy to claim you represent a group if you never define who actually fits into that group. Is it possible to represent all those in an undefined group when that group who believes they are middle class may range from minimum wage workers to doctors and lawyers, business owners, stock brokers, etc.?

  • Oct 15 2012: I remember reading at one time that the middle class is composed of professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, university professors, managers, etc. It is the class that, if allowed to expand, benefits the country the most.

    Another definition is those whose income is in the median zone so that they have more income than 50% of the population and less income than 50%.

    It may be that most believe that if they are not poverty stricken and also not rich, that they are middle class. I think, perhaps, that is the reason both parties seek to tap into this large reservoir of voters. They're easy to reach if they all believe they are middle class and part of the great majority most like themselves. People are likelier to vote for those they believe are like themselves because they conclude that people like themselves will produce the kind of results most beneficial to them.

    That belief may be valid, but only if the underlying belief that they are middle class is true. So it seems to me extraordinarily important that politicians define exactly what they mean when they claim to represent middle class values.
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    Oct 9 2012: Great topic, Viola. It's like trying to define who is "poor"...everyone will have their own definition. To me, someone is only truly poor (economically) if they don't have the means to provide for their basic human survival, shelter, and safety. Anything above that, and it seems to me they are entering the "middle class", where they have extra "disposable income" to use for other things than their basic survival..

    Then it becomes a problem of defining where the middle class vs the "rich" line is. That usually will invoke some heated discussion.

    I ride motorcycles. I currently own ONE motorcycle. A friend of mine owns FIVE of them. And he is one of the people who insist that the solution to many of humanity's problems is to redistribute the wealth of "the rich" to the "poor". I asked him one day, "When are you going to give four of your motorcycles away to the poor people to help them out?" He looked at me like I was crazy and said, "What? I'M NOT RICH !!! It's the people with all the money who need to do it!".

    He and I don't discuss economics very often anymore. ;-)
    • Oct 9 2012: For all you know his five motorcycles combined cost less than the one you own, now if he had five houses it would be different...
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        Oct 9 2012: Nope. I know exactly how much his 5 motorcycles cost compared to my one.

        The question is, does he really NEED 5 of them? Just like your example about the 5 houses. Even if he uses a motorcycle as his primary transportation tool, he doesn't NEED 5 of them. So is he over-wealthy by being able to purchase 5 of them? If I agree with the arguements people make about someone being "too rich", his ownership of 5 of the same things that serve the same purpose would justify it. Just like he can only live in one house at a time, he can only ride one motorcycle at a time, too.

        And just because somebody may own 5 houses doesn't mean they aren't contributing to society. What if they are renting those 4 other houses to families so THEY have someplace to live? Lots of people rent properties because they aren't wealthy enough to buy their own yet...or maybe never will be. Why did the housing meltdown happen? Because somebody came up with the idea that EVERYBODY could afford their own home, and made the "opportunity" available to them. Ouch.
        • Oct 10 2012: "So is he over-wealthy by being able to purchase 5 of them?"

          I can only eat 500gr of potatoes at once, but I can afford to buy many more potatoes than that. This doesn't make me rich because buying all those potatoes will merely give me a supply of them: I can't eat them all at the same time, but I don't have to, I can store them and eat them later. Your friend's motorcycles may last a long time because he can indeed ride only one at a time, so where you may own motorcycle at a time until it breaks down, and this way buy 5 of them during your lifetime, he may last a lifetime with the 5 he already owns. Also, important is the cost of these items compared to your total income, maybe your friend makes the sae salary as you but he has a slightly smaler house and/or a cheaper car and/or never goes on holiday, this is very much possible, now him owning 5 houses on the same salary is not possible.

          "And just because somebody may own 5 houses doesn't mean they aren't contributing to society. What if they are renting those 4 other houses to families so THEY have someplace to live?"

          If they were to sell those houses the prices would come down...

          Being poor doesn't just mean lacking the bare essentials: you have to be a functioning member of society and for that you need a job and you won't find a job without a phone number and you can't go to your job without some form of transportation...
          Being poor means having an income that's much less than the average income in your country/region, especially if you have a job that means you're getting ripped off.
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    Oct 9 2012: Good luck finding a universal definition.
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    Oct 8 2012: The fallacy in this subject is to think that the same individuals spend their life in any one income quintile, the vast majority do not. Which is what makes the U.S. so great, because the opportunity to better your self is there.
    • Oct 8 2012: No one said being a member of a certain class means you have to stay in it your whole life. But your comment does highlight how Americans think about this: "I make minimum wage but I expect to be middle class someday/have been in the middle class at some point in my life, that's why I call myself middle class" and "I'm a multi-millionaire but there was a time I was middle class and look, Bill Gates has more money than I do, that's why I call myself middle class", a.k.a. a modern version of the "temporarily embarassed millionaire" meme.
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      Gail .

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      Oct 9 2012: The ability to class-climb WAS what made America great. But now, America has become the opposite. It is the hardest of all developed countries to climb out of poverty or even the middle class.

      Please see the following TED talk.
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        Oct 9 2012: Wilkinson cherry picks his statistics, by only looking at selected countries, that demonstrates his theory which is crap.

        With the current POTUS you may be correct that climbing out of poverty is harder but in the past that is absolutely not true. The thing that creates opportunity is investment in small business. In the current environment that is hugely discouraged which is the real problem.
        • Oct 9 2012: Pat, you don't need fancy studies to see that the US has low social mobility. You know that in the US growing up in a poor neighboorhood means going to a bad school with a small budget, you know higher education is expensive as hell compared to other developed countries, you know young people start out without the security of health insurance, you know taxes only become low AFTER you have made a lot of money (in other words, when you don't need the help anymore). All of this is not new, it started under Reagan and continues to this day. All it takes to see this is a trip to another developed country.
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        Oct 9 2012: I think the statistic is that less than 20% of those in lowest quintile stay there for any length of time. It is just a fact nothing to debate. Your dystopian view is just not true and I will not debate your delusions as it is a waste of our time.
        • Oct 9 2012: The second quintile still means less than $35k per household. Your rags to riches idea is the fantasy here and it is you who thinks everyone must and can become wealthy and those that do not succeed at this may be left to rot in the streets.
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    Oct 8 2012: A lot of middle classmen are closely associated to suburban neighborhoods.
  • Oct 8 2012: "What is the universally accepted definition of the "middle class?" "

    There isn't one for the American middle class, almost all Americans, from minimum wage workers to multi-millionaires see themselves as middle class because those words have a positive connotation.