What Does It Mean To Be A Member Of The Middle Class In America?
For much of America’s history, the middle class has been a useful paradigm for understanding what is meant by "the American dream." But across the country, definitions of the middle class are changing, and income data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau prompts questions about the differing experiences of who identifies as part of the middle class.
The Census Bureau data says the 2016 median household income in the United States was just over $59,000 in 2016 – a number not seen in this country since 1999. In Texas, however, the 2016 median household income was $56,565 – more than$2,000 below the national median.
Dr. Kevin Leicht, head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of "Middle Class Meltdown in America: Causes, Consequences and Remedies," says that definitions of the middle class are largely informed at the local level. In addition to its economic importance, he says the middle class holds unquestionable cultural significance.
“Culturally, I think the United States has defined itself historically as a middle class society,” Leicht says. “It's a cultural category that implies respectability, upward mobility and making a contribution.”
Given the vast bundle of values packaged into the notion of the American middle class, it might seem obsolete to evaluate changes to it from a purely statistical perspective. However, Leicht says, the data released by the Census Bureau are more than just numbers.
“The number itself doesn't matter as much as what it signifies when it moves,” Leicht says. “When you make that number move upward, even if it's just a little bit, it means that a large swath of people are slowly becoming economically better off [and] the opportunities to make more money are spreading to a more general population.”
Leicht says that other components to consider are the lifestyles and possessions attached to what are considered staples of a middle class income.
“For the past 30 years or so, people were borrowing a lot of money to appear to be members of middle class so they could a mortgage with no money down [or] lease cars rather than buy them,” he says. “You might have a halfway decent income, but your overall financial picture was not all that rosy.”
For some who grew up in the middle class 40 or 50 years ago, maintaining that status and providing the associated lifestyle is more difficult than it was when they were children, especially for those hoping to provide a similar lifestyle for their families. Other Americans, however, find that attaining a middle class median income is more attainable than ever. Leicht says both of these perspectives are valid experiences of America’s current middle class.
“The people who hearken back on a past which represents a middle class lifestyle in the 1960s or the '70s was, in fact, easier to obtain,” he says. “But the people who are saying that now there are opportunities are also right, it's just that they have to work harder to get them.”
Written by Rachel Zein.