On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has said, “We need to make the middle class mean something again.” What does being middle class mean to Americans, and has the meaning changed? A review of public opinion on the middle class, from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research archives:
Who considers themselves middle class?
Since the earliest polling, very few Americans have been willing to call themselves either upper or lower class. Most of the country see themselves as middle-class or working class, though preference between those two terms shifts frequently. In 2014, 49% described themselves as middle class and 36% as working class, but just six years earlier, 43% chose middle and 45% working.
What determine class? Money
Class in some countries may be rooted in family background, occupation, or educational level, but for Americans the key driver is money. Income and wealth were cited by the public as the defining class signifiers in surveys across decades, while education and occupation were chosen as key characteristics of class by much lower proportions of the public.
Polls have found majorities consider the specific requirements for inclusion in the middle class to include being able to own a home and save money for the future. A 2013 Pew poll found some traditional social class markers such as a college education (37%) and owning investments (28%) chosen by fewer respondents than items related to financial security, including having a secure job (86%) and health insurance (66%).
The idea that a college degree is not essential to membership in the middle class is borne out by the educational levels of those who describe themselves as middle class. While in 2014 48% of the self-described middle-class had a college degree or more, 43% had only a high school degree or some college. The proportion of the middle class who have a college degree has increased greatly over the last fifty years, the result of greater overall enrollment numbers. However, those diplomas may not carry as much weight as they once did. In 1972, 80% of those who had a college degree described themselves as middle class, and 13% as working class. In 2014, 62% of those with a college degree described themselves as middle class, and 29% as working class.
So class is money – but how much money?
A number of polls through the years have tried to pinpoint the range of income that Americans believe classifies a family as middle class. A 2013 poll found a plurality of 40% believed that a family needed an annual income of $50,000-74,999 to be considered middle class. Thirty-one percent thought a higher income was required, while 20% thought an income under $50,000 sufficient. A 2007 KFF/Harvard/NPR poll found majorities considered those making $50,000 or $60,000 to be middle class, but only a third thought a family making $100,000 would be middle class. When asked the upper level of income that a family could make and still be considered middle class, 57% in a 2013 UConn poll put the limit below $80,000.
Self-perception of class among high-income earners, however, does not necessarily reflect the majority viewpoint. In 2014, 68% of top earners described themselves as middle class, a proportion unchanged from 1972.
Is the middle class in trouble?
Recent polls reflect the conventional wisdom: Americans believe the middle class is struggling. A February 2015 CBS poll found that 71% of the country believes that life for middle class Americans has gotten worse over the past ten years, while only 23% believe it has gotten better, a small increase in negativity from a pre-recession 2007 CBS poll when 30% thought life had gotten better and 59% worse. A 2013 Allstate/National Journal poll found that majorities of Americans believed that the middle class had fewer opportunities to get ahead (52%) and less job and financial security (65%) than their parents’ generation. Nearly equal proportions of the remainder believed they had the same or more. The same poll found that 85% of the public believed that over the past few years, the number of Americans who have fallen out of the middle class is greater than the number who have worked their way up into the middle class.
What can the middle class expect?
If life for the middle class has gotten worse, what sort of lifestyle can middle class people reasonably expect to achieve? Strong majorities see home ownership, job security and avoiding debt as realistic for the middle class. But just under half of Americans think that realistically, middle class people are unable to pay for their children’s college education, have enough money to deal with a health emergency or job loss, or save enough to retire comfortably. These are the concerns that any politician hoping to make the middle class “mean something again” will need to address.