The Moving Target Middle Class: Who Really Fits Into This Group?

The Moving Target Middle Class: Who Really Fits Into This Group?

These days, socioeconomic class divisions aren't quite as black and white as getting the good seat on the Titanic.

In fact, when it comes to defining the "middle class," the lines are just about as blurry as ever.


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Generally, this group has been viewed to be households sandwiched between the lowest-earning quarter of the country and the top-most quarter.

But depending on your choice of metrics, that middle section can actually vary drastically.

For example, if you're simply sizing up the middle class based on income, the group would span households making between $24,000 and $90,000 each year. But when you consider assets owned by the middle 50%, that range would widen from $9,000 to as much as $317,000.

Plus, things get even murkier when you ask people to self-identify. After all, to many Americans, the idea of middle class might have less to do with money than it does education or other symbols of social status.

Even so, a recent survey shows that fewer and fewer people consider themselves to be middle-class. According to Gallup, 51% of Americans in 2015 claim to be middle or upper-middle class—a big drop from the 63% who said so in 2009.

Instead, more Americans now see themselves on the lower part of the socioeconomic ladder.

While this shift has largely occurred since the Great Recession, experts believe that it actually has less to do with the economic downturn—and more to do with growing feelings of inequality.

In other words, as people see the country become increasingly unequal, they might be more likely to negatively compare themselves to each other—and place themselves on a lower rung.

And that's hugely problematic, Paul Piff, an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at U.C. Irvine, told The Atlantic. "It has implications for people's perceptions of social mobility. The lower you are the less likely you are to feel like you have control over the things that really matter in your life."

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