NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Defining The American Middle Class

May 18, 1997

New York's Republican Gov. George Pataki defines middle-class families as any household making up to $175,000 a year. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich defines middle class as families with incomes between $20,000 and $60,000 a year. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, making a salary of $171,500, claims "I'm a middle-class guy."

Since the middle class can't be all these things, does the oft-used phrase mean anything?

  • The National Association of Realtors says nearly half of America's families don't make enough to qualify for a mortgage on a $119,000 median priced house.
  • Among working couples, if the lesser-paid spouse were laid off, half the couples in the top one-fourth of earners would fall into the middle half -- with middle-class incomes defined as those making between $20,000 and $60,000.
  • Fully one-third of earners in the middle half would slip into the bottom quarter, according to a survey done at Queens College of the City of New York.

Experts say definitions of middle-class income depend on variables such as the number of wage earners and dependents, the cost of living, whether food stamps are included and how much wealth has been saved.

Source: Sam Roberts, "Another Kind of Middle-Class Squeeze," New York Times, May 18, 1997.


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