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Who Are You Calling Upper Class?

Inspired by a Seattle Times article entitled “Gap between rich and poor widening in troubled economy” I started to write a brilliant attack on the Bush Administration’s tax policies, which in my mind seemed to invariably favor the rich.

Before beginning, though, I decided I needed to clarify some terms, beginning with the term “middle class,” which is a term both parties seem to use rather loosely, perhaps not too surprising when you realize how many people claim that they are “middle class” or aspire to be “middle class.”

After searching the web for a definition, I ended up here, which seemed to offer the most comprehensive definition of this, at best, rather nebulous term.

It seemed to me that the technical definition offered, that the middle class is that part of the population that lies between the bottom 20% and the top 20%, is rather meaningless. Does that mean that in an impoverished third-world nation that someone who makes a $1000 a year is middle class? Using this definition, it’s impossible to argue that the middle class is disappearing because by definition there will always be a middle class, no matter how impoverished the nation might be.

Personally, though, I was more upset by some of the ramificaitions of that definition. Here’s one way of using those guidelines to define “middle class” from the article referenced above:

Another way to determine the economic middle class is to take the median household income of $40,800 and define as middle class those households that are between 80% and 120% of the median…that is households between $33,000 and $49,000.

According to that definition, I wouldn’t be middle class at all. I’d be part of the upper class, by a rather considerable margin.

Another application of that definition seems even more suspect in my mind:

… using U.S. census data from 1999, the middle class is those families whose incomes are more than $17,000 and less than $76,000.

I’m extremely doubtful that $17,000 would allow a family to live what I would call a middle class lifestyle. Here in the Pacific Northwest, at least west of the mountains where I live, at least half of that income would go for housing. Half of what’s left would have to go for food, and most of what’s left would go for car payments and gas money. They certainly couldn’t afford family health insurance or money for education. I doubtthey could even afford to outfit kids for school, except by going to charitable organizations.

This definition would, depending on the year, again put me in the upper class. It would certainly put most of my friends with two working family members in the upper class, which, again, seems like a questionable categorization to me.

Issues like this make me wish I’d taken more classes in economics or, even, read more widely in the field. I do know that I’ll be thinking a lot more on what the term “middle class” really means to me and why I’m so convinced that protecting what I call the “middle class” is essential to the long-term welfare of our nation.