What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

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What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby lutzj » Fri Jan 06, 2012 10:57 pm UTC

I've seen a number of definitions of "middle class" over the years. Sometimes it refers to the wealthy-but-not-landed bourgeoisie, sometimes it's a professional/merchant class between the laborers/peasants and ruling class, and sometimes it's just demarcated based on your income as a proportion of your area's "living wage" or median income. Politicians and activists are so willing to throw the term around that it's hard to tell what people understand it to be anymore.


    What is your understanding of socioeconomic class *as it exists in the real world*; that is, (how) would you divide society into classes? It's probably useful to restrict the scope of this to modern-day industrialized nations, but comparison between various regions and time periods also seems interesting.

    Specifically, how would you define "middle-class?" You might also assert that none exists, why?

    What is your ideal situation with regards to socioeconomic class? Do you think the gaps between the status quo and your ideal can be bridged?
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Azrael » Fri Jan 06, 2012 11:39 pm UTC

The answers may shift dramatically depending on whether the country ever had a true class system.

In the US there are all sorts of categories and subgroups and a tendency to focus on salary, and there are several models available here with breakdowns based around what portion of the population by income an individual or household falls into.

However, I think that job function groupings aren't terrible, although they're certainly more esoteric. This graphic mixes the two decently:
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Image

Or, simply:

Upper: Everyone works for you.
Upper Middle: Highly educated professionals and those who direct the work of others.
Lower Middle: Educated professional who are primarily self-directed.
Working: Those who are directed; The trades, manufacturing, service or clerical sectors. Some education and/or training.
Lower: Part time or unemployed. No education or training.

It should be noted, however, that the line between working and lower middle frequently gets lost because people want to be considered middle class.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby jareds » Sat Jan 07, 2012 4:01 am UTC

Azrael wrote:It should be noted, however, that the line between working and lower middle frequently gets lost because people want to be considered middle class.

That is quite true. In fact, the blurring occurs on both sides. According to Pew Research (a bit out of date), 53% of Americans identify as middle class (with no further adjectives), but 19% each identify as lower-middle class and upper-middle class, for a whopping total of 91% who identify themselves using the words "middle class". You'll notice that that report groups lower-middle and lower classes together and upper-middle and upper classes together, which is probably the sensible thing for demographers to do if they want the self-identified "middle class" to have any meaning.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Whimsical Eloquence » Sat Jan 07, 2012 9:57 pm UTC

I think it's probably more accurate to talk of "income groups" rather than classes in most countries at this point. The whole focus of class systems was that they weren't about money, or rather, that they weren't solely about money but rather the social perceptions built around them. For instance, the defining division between the Upper and Middle classes was, for ages, whether one worked for a living rather than merely receiving income from established properties, a gentleman having long been considered one who did not work. Indeed, more specifically the true Upper Class would have inherited its wealth - anyone who earned money, or indeed had to great a concern for it, was decidedly vulgar and Middle Class. Much of Middle Class ambition was not the acquisition of wealth, but rather the mimicry of the Upper Class in terms of its manners and styles. One could be Upper Class and quite impoverished, particularly because one would have been expected to behave in particular ways.

While obviously, one can still see divisions in how different income groups operate economically - lower ones consume, upper ones invest as characteristic of income disposal - the same sort of cultural constructions are less apparent. While there is obviously eagerness to imitate other wealth groups, this is a good deal less vertical, indeed social mobility is almost entirely done through wealth accumulation. The disappearance of the class element of income groups is part of the reason most disproportionately identify as Middle Class. With most of society enjoying a relatively similar culture there is no pressing desire to achieve any distinct class identity. In many peoples mind Upper Class has distinct and often negative connotations, monocles and silly hats, while Working Class is both similarly stereotyped and is now seen as admission of failure. Indeed, many people now see themselves or desire themselves to be "successful" rather than Upper Class or some such. Successful can be equated to this wealth accumulation rather than any mimicry of an existing social group, especially one with a negative image. Basic values dominate across income groups of success through hard work/good fortune and money, and its making, is regarded as a good thing - the only distinction is how much you make. Everyone can, or feels that they can, relate to that essentially (and formally) Middle Class construct. In a sense society has become, even if conceitedly and disingenuously, Middle Class.

I think it's largely becoming useless to ask people to self-identify on class terms, except to exhibit this sort of collective thinking, but rather to asses themselves within the earning percentiles. While it is probable that people will still do this inaccurately, it gives much more of an insight into where their self-misplacement is originating from.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Izawwlgood » Sat Jan 07, 2012 10:18 pm UTC

The only objection I have to your breakdown Az, is that CEOs are wealthy because of a salary (and putting CEOs as 'upper class' in the 200k+ range), and that graduate degree holders are inherently upper class.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Azrael » Sun Jan 08, 2012 1:12 am UTC

I'm not sure which way you're objecting.

I don't consider a graduate degree to be a automatic upper class ticket. Certain categories (MBAs, Law, Medicine) are very often a per-requisite for the types of jobs that lead to upper class incomes. But others don't necessarily, or nearly can't, open those doors.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Zamfir » Tue Jan 10, 2012 1:55 pm UTC

I once read an interwsting book (but can't remember the title) about the use of social ranking terms through the centuries. So it didn't study whether there were classes (or 'estates' or a 'social ladder' or a 'hierarchy'), just how people used such concepts in writing. It focssed on England, but some of the trends are probably more generally valid.

The main conclusion was that people always describe such rankings as something that used to be strong and clear in the past, but as much more muddled nowadays. Some writers decry the loss, others celebrate this new age with less strict ranks. The book went back to 16th century or so, and generation after generation people would write about how there used to be clear social ranks a few generations ago, but are now disappearing. Apparently, social class is a lot like "kids these days", it always changes while staying the same.

Another conclusion was that people would switch between three broad models: there are two main bins, or three main bins, or a continuum where people can be ranked as higher or lower than another but without bins. Models with 4 or more bins ar rare and usually morph into a 'continuum' model. Writers often use more than one such model in their texts, like when Americans can talk about 'the middle class' (3-bin model) and about 'the 99%' (two-bin model).

When people use a 3-bin model, they nearly always place themselves in the middle bin. They consider the middle bin the good and balanced one. Country noblemen might consider the court as power hungry, and the commoners as gross. Small farmers might consider landless hobos as dirty and dangerous, and others as snobs. Urban bourgeoisie aren't uneducated manual workers, nor lazy people who inherited their wealth. Etc.

In the 2-bin model, people usually do not draw a line through the middle bin. Instead, they either merge the lower group and their own group to form a "we against the oppressors" group, or they merge the higher group and their own group to make a "good and responsible people against the dirty slackers" group.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby CorruptUser » Tue Jan 10, 2012 2:45 pm UTC

The main objection I have with basing it on income alone, ignores the purchasing power of that income. You can live comfortably and raise a family of 4 on a $60k/yr income in, say, Nebraska, but not in NYC.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby KestrelLowing » Tue Jan 10, 2012 4:27 pm UTC

For me, I've always defined middle class starting as those who no longer really need to worry about money. Basically, if you're living paycheck to paycheck with a reasonable lifestyle, you're not middle class. But if you could have a reasonable mortgage, eat standard food (mainly cheap foodstuffs, but able to have a semblance of a healthy diet), and have the ability to save for emergencies and retirement, that's the start of the middle class. Obviously it varies from place to place as living expenses differ.

Basically, I see the middle class as the ultimate productive class. When you're poor, you can't really benefit society in an economic way. You're too busy worrying about if you can afford to feed your kids. This isn't to say that poor people aren't valuable! It's just that they have to worry about the most basic things and can't really help with things 'higher up the pyramid'.

When you're rich, you often just make money with money by playing the stock market and such. If you're middle class though, you've probably got some sort of job that can tangibly help the economy and society. For example, you can run a store, or repair things, or design new things. This is why I believe the 'rise of the middle class' is such an important thing - you've got people who do stuff that can tangibly benefit society.

For me, the upper cut-off has always been rather fuzzy. I'm still not quite sure where to draw the line for that one. Doctors, for example, are often quite rich comparatively, but are not obscenely rich - they may have the nicest house on the block and can afford a nicer car, but it's not like they've got a mansion.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Ixtellor » Tue Jan 10, 2012 4:50 pm UTC

CorruptUser wrote:The main objection I have with basing it on income alone, ignores the purchasing power of that income. You can live comfortably and raise a family of 4 on a $60k/yr income in, say, Nebraska, but not in NYC.


Adjust it for inflation by region and that problem is solved.

Back to the OP, its a great question and there is no right answer.

I personally believe its a combination of income (adjusted for inflation) and societal mentality.

For example I know a lot of families that make good money, but are 1 generation removed from poverty and still hold a lot of those cultural values. (no snitching, cops are evil, life = bitches and money)
So when it comes to resolving issues, instead of using mainstream middle class methods, they resort to those other cultural norms of soloving problems.

I am not advocating that one behavior is better than another, just that they are different and I tend to see them along class lines.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Narsil » Tue Jan 10, 2012 9:36 pm UTC

For me, middle class means that I'm too poor for college and not poor enough for financial aid.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby CorruptUser » Tue Jan 10, 2012 10:04 pm UTC

That's more lower middle-class. Middle middle-class goes to state school. Upper middle-class can go to private school.

Not including the effects of scholarships, obviously.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby LaserGuy » Tue Jan 10, 2012 10:11 pm UTC

My impression was that "officially" it was that: Bottom 20% of incomes are lower class; 21-40% are lower-middle; 40%-60% are middle; 60%-80% are upper-middle; and 80%-100% are upper class.

People with massive amounts of assets but tiny incomes would also be upper class.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Azrael » Tue Jan 10, 2012 10:39 pm UTC

I've never once seen a system that breaks it up into perfect quintiles before.

In fact, in the US that would put household incomes >$92K as upper class. I don't have much issue declaring that one entirely wrong based solely on that.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Adam H » Tue Jan 10, 2012 10:45 pm UTC

I'm fine with defining middle class as everyone who isn't on welfare (or however you want to define the lower class) and who isn't in the top 5% (or so) of earners. Just because a subset of people make up nearly 90% of the population doesn't mean that it's a meaningless distinction to make. There's value in throwing out the outliers.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Azrael » Tue Jan 10, 2012 10:48 pm UTC

Adam H wrote:... a subset of people make up nearly 90% of the population ...

By the previous link, 25% of US households lie below the 2011 poverty line.

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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby setzer777 » Tue Jan 10, 2012 10:58 pm UTC

KestrelLowing wrote:For me, I've always defined middle class starting as those who no longer really need to worry about money. Basically, if you're living paycheck to paycheck with a reasonable lifestyle, you're not middle class. But if you could have a reasonable mortgage, eat standard food (mainly cheap foodstuffs, but able to have a semblance of a healthy diet), and have the ability to save for emergencies and retirement, that's the start of the middle class. Obviously it varies from place to place as living expenses differ.


I also tend to understand the division between lower and middle class in this way, particularly the relative risk of homelessness, malnutrition, and death by easily preventable illness. Given that I'd also factor things in like family into class (for example I know someone who's income has been non-existent well into her adult life, but she receives enormous amounts of material goods from her parents - the odds of her ever facing material hardship are virtually nonexistent).
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Bubbles McCoy » Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:04 pm UTC

Azrael wrote:By the previous link, 25% of US households lie below the 2011 poverty line.

Statistics: They are useful.

Which link? According to the census, 15.1% of individuals and 11.7% of families are below the poverty line.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Azrael » Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:16 pm UTC

Bubbles McCoy wrote:Which link? According to the census, 15.1% of individuals and 11.7% of families are below the poverty line.
Azrael wrote:... household incomes >$92K ...

That link, although the conclusion was wrong? Looked up the poverty line from a different source as $22.5k and tied that into the bottom 25% income percentile from above. The error is likely in the reporting methods between census rates, those quartiles and that the $22.5 number is specifically for a family of four.

So let's stick with the 15%. I think it's the more inclusive number -- not everyone gets counted in the "family" numbers, but I believe all constituent members of families get incorporated into the individuals tally.

(ALSO: Holy shit, Mississippi and Louisiana.)
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby CorruptUser » Wed Jan 11, 2012 1:34 am UTC

Azrael wrote:(ALSO: Holy shit, Mississippi and Louisiana.)


Yeah, those (and DC) have been a giant stain on the US's reputation for decades. Worst education, highest infant mortality, shortest life expectancy, and so forth.

Honestly, if you were to split the US up into its composite states and then compare them to European countries, it no longer becomes "Sweden >> US in everything". Connecticut and Massachusetts are up there with Sweden for health/education/income, while Mississippi and Louisiana compete with parts of Eastern Europe for worst place to live.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Puppyclaws » Wed Jan 11, 2012 5:29 pm UTC

What's interesting to me is how much "class" is being defined here as a matter of finances. I tend to think of it as a cultural categorization, related moreso to prestige than to how much money an individual has. Which is not to say that money isn't a factor, but I feel it's important to note it isn't the only factor.

As for what "middle class" is, I would say it includes mostly non-hourly, salaried individuals in mid-level positions with a supervisor, generally doing something "clean." E.g. a janitor who makes 60,000/yr is not, in my mind, middle class. An office worker making 50,000/yr generally is part of the middle class. I tend to think in terms of 4 categories:
1. The wealthy (including old rich, and those who come from money, even if the individual is not necessarily wealthy themselves, as well as new rich such as corporate CEO's and other extremely high-paying business work, or most big name celebrities in film/television/music)
2. The upper class (well-off professionals in positions of extreme prestige and/or considerable money [e.g. Harvard Professors, many VP's and similar mid-high positions in certain business/industries, top-level surgeons, some lawyers; but not typical college professors or doctors, who I would put as part of the middle class])
3. The middle class (as stated above, salaried individuals with decent pay in most non-grimy jobs)
4. The working class and the poor (the jobless, or those who work in unskilled/uneducated jobs or jobs involving manual labor)
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby TranquilFury » Fri Jan 13, 2012 3:55 am UTC

Middle class means you have basic needs met(food, water, shelter), but no power or influence.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby kiklion » Fri Jan 13, 2012 4:28 pm UTC

What is your understanding of socioeconomic class *as it exists in the real world*; that is, (how) would you divide society into classes?


Changes based off of area. I know other places have or do have a caste system that you are born into and cannot ascend into another caste/class. I am also very proud of the fact that in America, anyone can ascend into a higher class through their own achievements.

It's probably useful to restrict the scope of this to modern-day industrialized nations, but comparison between various regions and time periods also seems interesting.

Specifically, how would you define "middle-class?" You might also assert that none exists, why?


Middle class would be anyone that works for their money and does not receive government handouts. This includes CEO's and Investor's in my opinion. People whose income/wealth come from others investing and making the decisions for them are upper class. Lower class would be those who receive any government handouts that have a maximum income threshold.

What is your ideal situation with regards to socioeconomic class? Do you think the gaps between the status quo and your ideal can be bridged?


I think the united states is pretty close to an ideal. What I believe affects people more, is the culture they are born into. Not the economic class.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby LaserGuy » Fri Jan 13, 2012 5:21 pm UTC

kiklion wrote:Middle class would be anyone that works for their money and does not receive government handouts. This includes CEO's and Investor's in my opinion. People whose income/wealth come from others investing and making the decisions for them are upper class. Lower class would be those who receive any government handouts that have a maximum income threshold.


Strictly speaking, CEOs and investors receive lots of money in government handouts. Corporate welfare in the United States has been estimated at about $100 billion at the federal level, and around $50 billion at the state/local level. That's not including the bailouts, of course.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby kiklion » Fri Jan 13, 2012 6:38 pm UTC

LaserGuy wrote:
kiklion wrote:Middle class would be anyone that works for their money and does not receive government handouts. This includes CEO's and Investor's in my opinion. People whose income/wealth come from others investing and making the decisions for them are upper class. Lower class would be those who receive any government handouts that have a maximum income threshold.


Strictly speaking, CEOs and investors receive lots of money in government handouts. Corporate welfare in the United States has been estimated at about $100 billion at the federal level, and around $50 billion at the state/local level. That's not including the bailouts, of course.


I assume you are talking about subsidies and tax benefits, in which case they still work for them through lobbying the government. I completely hate those, but it fits within my definition. They go to work to earn their money.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby CorruptUser » Fri Jan 13, 2012 9:13 pm UTC

kiklion wrote:Middle class would be anyone that works for their money and does not receive government handouts. This includes CEO's and Investor's in my opinion. People whose income/wealth come from others investing and making the decisions for them are upper class. Lower class would be those who receive any government handouts that have a maximum income threshold.


I wouldn't include billionaires such as Oprah, Jobs and JK Rowling in the list of middle-class people.

Though in terms of "middle class values", people who work their asses off for their income tend to have different ways of looking at life than people who have it handed to them.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Azrael » Fri Jan 13, 2012 9:24 pm UTC

CorruptUser wrote:
kiklion wrote:Middle class would be anyone that works for their money and does not receive government handouts. This includes CEO's and Investor's in my opinion. People whose income/wealth come from others investing and making the decisions for them are upper class. Lower class would be those who receive any government handouts that have a maximum income threshold.


I wouldn't include billionaires such as Oprah, Jobs and JK Rowling in the list of middle-class people.

Nor movie stars, celebrities or professional athletes.

Somewhere along the way, when you reach some level on the "rich" line you're no longer middle class. Even if you still "go to the office" every day. The pre-Edwardian British model that the upper class are those who don't "work" is simply insufficient for the modern economy.

Or, for that matter, any country that didn't have a Monarchy supported landed Peerage.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby folkhero » Sun Jan 15, 2012 12:17 pm UTC

Azrael wrote:
CorruptUser wrote:I wouldn't include billionaires such as Oprah, Jobs and JK Rowling in the list of middle-class people.

Nor movie stars, celebrities or professional athletes.

I'm guessing you mean star athletes, not professional athletes. Most pro athletes are closer to "guy scratching by playing minor league baseball and hoping to make it to the big time," than Payton Manning or David Beckham.

Puppyclaws wrote:As for what "middle class" is, I would say it includes mostly non-hourly, salaried individuals in mid-level positions with a supervisor, generally doing something "clean." E.g. a janitor who makes 60,000/yr is not, in my mind, middle class. An office worker making 50,000/yr generally is part of the middle class.
Nurses are usually hourly workers (in the US) and certainly aren't doing something clean, which would make them not middle class by your definition. That seems wrong to me, even ignoring money, because they are highly trained professionals.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby CorruptUser » Sun Jan 15, 2012 2:22 pm UTC

folkhero wrote:Nurses are usually hourly workers (in the US) and certainly aren't doing something clean, which would make them not middle class by your definition. That seems wrong to me, even ignoring money, because they are highly trained professionals.


Minor nitpick here.

Highly trained professionals? Nurses run the gamut from Licensed Practical Nurses (technical degree) to Registered Nurses (masters degree). A "highly" trained professional would be a MD, JD, PhD, DPM, DDS, etc. Not saying nurses aren't important, just not "highly" trained (and only RN's "professional").
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Yakk » Sun Jan 15, 2012 3:10 pm UTC

Instead of splitting the population into quintiles by income, we should split income into quintiles by population.

Top 20% of income: upper class
Next 20% of income: upper middle
Next 20% of income: middle middle
Next 20% of income: lower middle
Bottom 20% of income: lower class

This has the disadvantage of guaranteeing that the middle class controls 60% of the economy, by definition.

Another issue is that few splits of the economy take into account both net present worth and income. The financial well being of a household or person is a function of both factors. We could imagine throwing in a future discount factor on future income and using that to generate a "income included net present worth" in order to build one chart that would consider both the 2 million dollar in assets, retired with 15k in income and the 500k in debt, 250k salary as being in a somewhat similar area, instead of one of them being poor under "current wealth" and the other being poor under "current income" and each being relatively well off in the other category...
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby firechicago » Sun Jan 15, 2012 3:11 pm UTC

CorruptUser wrote:Highly trained professionals? Nurses run the gamut from Licensed Practical Nurses (technical degree) to Registered Nurses (masters degree). A "highly" trained professional would be a MD, JD, PhD, DPM, DDS, etc. Not saying nurses aren't important, just not "highly" trained (and only RN's "professional").


I fail to see a major distinction in kind between an RN with a two-year masters and a lawyer with a three-year J.D., such that one is "highly trained" while the other is not (whatever those terms mean.) For that matter, I believe there are still some places where a JD isn't necessary to practice law, anyone who can pass the bar exam can do so. And in this economic climate, your average newly-minted MSN graduate may well make more than a newly minted JD.

Generally, at least in America, everyone defines themselves as "middle class." I've known people who made $25,000 and people who made $400,000 who called themselves "middle class". And the way that the stratification of wealth works in America, from both people's point of view, the classification makes sense:

The person making $400K says "Sure, I live in a big house in an expensive suburb, with a small vacation home on the beach, and my children go to expensive private schools, but my boss and some of the other parents at my kids' school have two vacation homes and a luxury apartment in Manhattan. They're really rich, I'm just upper middle class."

The person making less than $25K says "Sure I don't make very much, but I'm working for a non-profit that gives me good benefits, and my job is a creative one that requires a BA. There are lots of people who may make the same topline income as I do, but are a lot worse off, so that makes me middle class."

Class is always relative, "upper class" is always "someone who makes three times what I do." And "lower class" is "someone who makes less than I do."
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Azrael » Sun Jan 15, 2012 4:36 pm UTC

folkhero wrote:
Azrael wrote:
CorruptUser wrote:I wouldn't include billionaires such as Oprah, Jobs and JK Rowling in the list of middle-class people.

Nor movie stars, celebrities or professional athletes.
I'm guessing you mean star athletes, not professional athletes. Most pro athletes are closer to "guy scratching by playing minor league baseball and hoping to make it to the big time," than Payton Manning or David Beckham.
Stars? No. 2010 NFL league minimum is $325k, NBA is $473.6k and MLB is $414k.

Sure, there a lots of athletes making a living at the non-national level (i.e. the minors) or in non-major market sports. But in the average parlance those aren't who is referred to by "Professional Athletes". I'll admit that things can be drastically different in other countries and sports (like soccer).


Yakk wrote:Instead of splitting the population into quintiles by income, we should split income into quintiles by population.

Top 20% of income: upper class
Next 20% of income: upper middle
Next 20% of income: middle middle
Next 20% of income: lower middle
Bottom 20% of income: lower class

This has the disadvantage of guaranteeing that the middle class controls 60% of the economy, by definition.

... that's already been suggested. And I'll reiterate that it would put "upper class" boundary in the US as a $92k household income. Which is pretty ludicrous low by simple common sense. It may be an easy way to divide, but it's entirely arbitrary (why not quartiles or sextiles?) and completely nonsensical by all other measures.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Yakk » Mon Jan 16, 2012 3:38 pm UTC

No, I said "top 20% of income", not "top 20% of incomes". Possibly I should have said "the part of the population that controls the top 20% of income, ordered by the amount each household earns", or words to that effect? It is tricky to word right.

If you swing over to the XKCD money chart, Randall already did the work.

On the Trillion chart, the US household income section.

The cut off for the "top 20% of income" is a household earning ~400,000$+/year, consisting of ~1.3% of households. So 400k+ is "upper class".
The cut off for the next 20% of income is a household earning ~150,000$+/year, consisting of ~8% of households. So 150k-400k is "upper middle class".
The cut off for the next 20% of income is a household earning ~90,000$+/year, consisting of ~16% of households. So 90k-150k is "middle middle class".
The cut off for the next 20% of income is a household earning ~55,000$+/year, consisting of ~23% of households. So 55k-90k is "lower middle class".
The cut off for the bottom 20% of income is a household earning less than ~55,000$/year, consisting of ~52% of households. So a household income of 55k and below is "lower class".

These are divided into quintiles of "economic strength". Economically, the upper class, the upper middle, the middle middle, the lower middle and the lower class each have about as much "voting power" economically.

We could instead split things into thirds -- upper, middle and lower classes, then talk about 1/3 of each third as upper upper, middle upper and lower upper (etc). Each class (upper, middle and lower) would have about the same total economic power (realized or not) under such a scheme.

Note that under perfect income equality, we'd have 20% of the population in each bucket. Under a (true) absolute economic despotism, we'd have one person in every category, and the rest of the population in the lower classes. (Amusingly, the true economic despot would be the entire upper, upper middle, middle middle, lower middle, and also in the lower class -- but that is sort of a corner case!)
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Azrael » Mon Jan 16, 2012 4:23 pm UTC

Ah, got it. Similar to the concept of 'controlling the top 20% of wealth'. But incomes rather than total assets.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Yakk » Mon Jan 16, 2012 4:27 pm UTC

Actually, income not wealth. Wealth disparity a different distribution (and less balanced) -- what is worse is that there is a non-trivial percentage of the US population with a negative net worth, especially if you don't include the present value of future income and/or social benefits.

And the word "top" is problematic -- the "top 20%" is the same size as the rest (unlike the top 20% of incomes, where the count of numbers is the same, but the total of the numbers is greater), ordered only by a higher per-household (or capita) concentration. It almost feels like an English grammar fail -- some kind of double-subject issue, where the same sentence has two different orthogonal subjects with equal, yet different, connections to the sentence. It is easy to describe in mathematical notation, but...
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby CorruptUser » Mon Jan 16, 2012 4:34 pm UTC

Yakk wrote:what is worse is that there is a non-trivial percentage of the US population with a negative net worth


Which includes people like Donald Trump, who had a net worth of -$900m back in the 90s, but I would never include him on the list of poorest Americans.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Puppyclaws » Mon Jan 16, 2012 6:18 pm UTC

folkhero wrote:Nurses are usually hourly workers (in the US) and certainly aren't doing something clean, which would make them not middle class by your definition. That seems wrong to me, even ignoring money, because they are highly trained professionals.


Safe to say that you and I do not see eye-to-eye then. If being highly trained was the only standard (or even a significant one) doctors should be way above corporate executives. I would argue that nurses occupy a middle ground, where some are middle class and some are not. Nurses have considerably more prestige than janitors, but considerably less than doctors, and depending on where they work and what type of nursing they work in I would argue on the average less prestige than office workers. Some nurses (like those who deal solely with anesthesia) could even be considered upper class, particularly if that is their personal background. Others, who perform fairly basic functions and live in areas that are primarily working class while they themselves come from working class families, would in my mind be working class. Most of the people who I know, who currently work in nursing, I would describe as working class; they are essentially the bottom rung of the hospital, and their friends are others who work in low-paying or low-respect fields.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby Dark567 » Mon Jan 16, 2012 6:47 pm UTC

CorruptUser wrote:
Yakk wrote:what is worse is that there is a non-trivial percentage of the US population with a negative net worth


Which includes people like Donald Trump, who had a net worth of -$900m back in the 90s, but I would never include him on the list of poorest Americans.

That's not really true. My understanding is that most of Trump's negative asset's are in LLC's. That means he could declare those bankrupt, and still hang on to his personal positive worth. That's very different from having credit card debts or a mortgage debt.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby CorruptUser » Mon Jan 16, 2012 7:55 pm UTC

The $900m was personal; he had $3.5B in business debts, for a total negative net worth of -$4.4B. He somehow used bankruptcy to regain his wealth. Clearly he would've made a great president, being able to multiply be negative 1.
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Re: What does it mean to be "middle-class?"

Postby quantumcat42 » Mon Jan 16, 2012 8:21 pm UTC

I recently attended a conference held at a Waldorf Astoria resort. There was a resort guest there wearing a t-shirt that said "At least the War on the Middle Class is going well". Given the context, it was unclear which way to take it.
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