What Is Middle Class?

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I love election season. It’s the time of year that the middle class gets the most attention. We finally get to be the belles of the ball! The rest of the time, billionaires are being pampered with corporate subsidies and the poor are trying to access government resources to close the financial gaps preventing them from getting basics necessities. We, on the other hand, get the typical middle child treatment of abandonment. But at election time? Oh-wee! Everyone is talking about us.

So it wasn’t surprising to me when I saw a New York Times article telling Hillary that she was wrong about the middle class. “$250k a year is not middle class”, the article said. So I decided to do some googling.

A Pew research website shows that people (or households) in that income bracket are in the top 21% of earners in this country. That’s 5 times the median income. But before we take the Pew’s statistics as irrefutable evidence that the Ed Op piece is correct, we need to go beneath the surface.

As someone who encourages people to be frugal and ains to maximize her own wealth by shifting towards a more efficient lifestyle, I would never consider someone (or a family) in a $250k income bracket “struggling”. However, stating they’re a “top income earner” is misleading and doesn’t account for some very important factors.

Being richER than someone else doesn’t actually make you rich. If you’re on food stamps and are living with a family of 4 in a 700 square foot studio on one income, are you rich? The homeless guy down the street might think so because you have a place to live at all, but that doesn’t make it true. But it might seem that way if we categorize rich and poor by splitting them into 2 groups of “homeless vs. a roof over your head.”

That’s one of the flaws of the Pew’s tiered system of assessing class based on income levels. Saying that I’m in the “upper 21% of earners” puts me in the same category as Donald Trump despite the fact that I do not have the same access to the all (or even most of) luxuries and benefits that being in that class offers. For example, I can afford an Über, but not a full time chauffeur. I can afford a gun, but not a body guard. I can afford a few meals out, but not a cook.

Furthermore, while 250k a year will give any sensible person a good quality of life, we all know that $250k in NYC is not the same as $250k in OKC. Someone earning $250k a year in Oklahoma might be one of the wealthier residents in the neighborhood. But how far would that money take you in D.C.? Or even in Boston? In a nice part of town in my state, anything less than a million won’t get you a mansion. An 1,800 square foot house in Wellesley (a desirable suburb of Boston) went on the market for over $800k, with property taxes being over $8k a year. A 2-bedroom apartment with access to the city (not IN the city, meaning a 20 minute train ride) and close to public transportation, averages out to $2,000 a month. That’s just my state, which is pretty moderate. Because, who knows what’s going on out in San Francisco.

These factors are why I think we should formally get away from the three-tier system of upper, middle and lower classes. I’ve been lower class, but I’ve never been hungry or homeless. And I think people who have would resent me saying that I “identify with the struggle”, just like I resent being lumped with 7-figure earners who charter private jets to Vegas. While I don’t expect the Pew to adjust their stratification by adjusting for local economic factors, they should consider revamping their calculations to split the three major groups into subcategories.

Don’t get me wrong, I could live on $250,000 anywhere. I would live, and I would live well. But, my location would be the determining factor of which income class I consider myself to be a member.

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