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File:A monument of working class.JPG

A monument to the working and supporting classes along Market Street in the heart of San Francisco's Financial District, home to tens-of-thousands of professional and managerial middle class workers each day.

The American middle class is an ambiguously defined social class in the United States.[1][2] While the concept remains largely ambiguous in popular opinion and common language use,[3][4] contemporary sociologists have put forward several, more or less congruent, theories on the American middle class. Depending on class model used, the middle class may constitute anywhere from 25% to 66% of households. One of first major studies of White Collar: The American Middle Classes, was made by sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1951. Later sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert of Hamilton College commonly divide the middle class into two sub-groups. Constituting roughly 15% to 20% of households is the upper or professional middle class consisting of highly educated, salaried professionals and managers. Constituting roughly one third of households is the lower middle class consisting mostly of semi-professionals, skilled craftsmen and lower level management.[2][5] Middle class persons commonly have a comfortable standard of living, significant economic security, considerable work autonomy and rely on their expertise to sustain themselves.[6]

Everyone wants to believe they are middle class...But this eagerness...has led the definition to be stretched like a bungee cord — used to defend/attack/describe everything...The Drum Major Institute...places the range for middle class at individuals making between $25,000 and $100,000 a year. Ah yes, there's a group of people bound to run into each other while house-hunting.

Dante Chinni[4]

There is considerable diversity among members of the middle class, who tend to overlap with each other. Overall, middle class persons, especially upper middle class individuals, are characterized by conceptualizing, creating and consulting. Thus, college education is one of the main indicators of middle class status. Largely attributed to the nature of middle class occupations, middle class values tend to emphasize independence, adherence to intrinsic standards, valuing innovation and respecting non-conformity.[6][2] Politically more active than other demographics, college educated middle class professionals are split.[7] Income varies considerably from near the national median to well in excess of $100,000.[5][2] Household income figures, however, do not always reflect class status and standard of living, as they are largely influenced by the number of income earners and fail to recognize household size. It is therefore possible for a large, dual-earner, lower middle class household to out-earn a small, one-earner, upper middle class household.[6] The middle classes are very influential, as they encompass the majority of voters, writers, teachers, journalists, and editors. Most societal trends in the US originate within the middle classes.[8]


File:Class distribution US.svg

America's middle class.

The middle class by one definition consists of an upper middle class, made up of professionals distinguished by exceptionally high educational attainment as well as high economic security; and a lower middle class, consisting of semi-professionals. While the groups overlap, differences between those at the center of both groups are considerable. The lower middle class has lower educational attainment, considerably less workplace autonomy, and lower incomes than the upper middle class. With the emergence of a two-tier labor market, the economic benefits and life chances of upper middle class professionals have grown considerably compared to those of the lower middle class.[2][6] The lower middle class also commonly needs two income earners in order to sustain a comfortable standard of living, while many upper middle class households can maintain a similar standard of living with just one income earner.[9][10] Both groups, depending on definition, are believed to be growing. Yet, popular opinions on the subject vary greatly with some dividing the middle class into as many as three sections.[8]

The professional/managerial middle class

The "professional class", also called the "upper middle class", consists mostly of white collar professionals, most of whom are highly educated, salaried professionals whose work is largely self-directed. Many have graduate degrees, with educational attainment serving as the main distinguishing feature of this class. Typical occupations of the Professional Class would include University Professor, Physician, Lawyer, Journalist, Architect, Physicist, Chemist, Engineer, Pharmacist and Airline Pilot. Household incomes commonly exceed $100,000, with some smaller one-income-earner households having incomes in the high 5-figure range.[2][6][11] Class members usually hold college degrees and often hold graduate degrees.[2][12] Middle class professionals tend to conceptualize, create, consult, and supervise in their occupations. As a result, upper middle class employees enjoy great autonomy in the work place and are more satisfied with their careers than non-professional middle class individuals. The educational attainment among the members of this class lends the professional middle class some immunity against economic downturns and an above-average lifestyle while also serving as the main entrance barrier into this class.[8] This class, partially due to its occupations, does have a great influence on American society and is often seen as social standard despite its relatively small size.[8] In terms of financial wealth and income, the professional middle class fits in the top third, when excluding the top 5% of American society.[13] According to sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert, James Henslin, Joseph Hickey, and William Thompson, the upper middle class constitutes 15% of the population.[2]

The upper middle class has grown… and its composition has changed. Increasingly salaried managers and professionals have replaced individual business owners and independent professionals. The key to the success of the upper-middle-class is the growing importance of educational certification… its lifestyles and opinions are becoming increasingly normative for the whole society. It is in fact a porous class, open to people… who earn the right credentials.

Dennis Gilbert, The American Class Structure, 1998.[14]

Values and mannerisms are difficult to pinpoint for a group encompassing millions of persons. Naturally, any large group of people will feature social diversity to some extent. However, some generalizations can be made using education and income as class defining criteria. William Thompson and Joseph Hickey noted that upper middle class individual have a more direct and confident manner of speech.[2] In her 1989 publication Effects of Social Class and Interactive Setting on Maternal Speech, Erica Hoff-Ginsberg found that among her surveyed subjects, "Upper-middle class mothers talked more per unit of time and sustained longer interactions with children." She also found that the speech of upper middle class mothers differs "in its functional, discourse, and lexico-syntactic properties," from those in the working class.[15] Upper middle class manners tend to require individuals engaging in conversational discourse with rather distant associates, and to abstain from sharing excessive personal information. This contradicts working class speech patterns, which often include frequent mentions of one's personal life.[16] Further research also suggests that working class parents emphasize conformity, traditional gender roles, and the adherence to external standards in their children, such as being neat and clean and "[believing] in strict leadership." (Gilbert, 1998) This contrasted with professional class households, where gender roles were more egalitarian and loosely defined. Upper middle class children were largely taught to adhere to internal standards, with curiosity, individuality, self-direction, and openness to new ideas being emphasized.[14] While a recent Gallup survey showed mass affluent households to be conservative on economic issues while liberal on social issues, the upper middle class seems to be relatively politically polarized. In the 2006 mid-term elections both Democrats and Republicans received over 40% of the vote from those with advanced degrees and those in households with six figure incomes. While households with incomes exceeding $100,000 tend to favor Republicans slightly, they are also the only income demographic where Ralph Nader won more than 1% of the vote. Among those with graduate degrees, a smaller group than those with six figure incomes, the majority tends to vote Democratic[17] with roughly 1% having voted for Nader in 2004.[18]

Sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert, William Thompson, and Joseph Hickey estimate the upper middle class to constitute roughly 15% of the population. Using this figure, one may conclude that the American upper middle class consist of professionals making more than $62,500 who commonly reside in households with six figure incomes.[2][14][19][20] Both of these figures are considerably above the national median of $32,000 regarding individual income and $46,000 for households. Many upper middle class professions feature salaries above $67,348, which was the median household income for a household with two income earners in 2003.[21][22] For example, the median salary for economists was $72,780, meaning that the majority of economists out earn the majority of two-income households with their single salaries alone.[23] Overall, the median household income of a household whose householder had a bachelor's degree or higher was $77,179. The median household income for those with master's degree was $81,023, while those with a doctorate or professional degree had a median income above $100,000 annually.[2][14][24]

Lower middle class

The lower middle class is the second most populous according to both Gilbert's as well as Thompson & Hickey's models, constituting roughly one third of the population, the same percentage as the working class. However, according to James M. Henslin, who also divides the middle class into two sub-groups, the lower middle class is the most populous, constituting 34% of the population.[5] In all three class models the lower middle class is said to consist of "semi-professionals" and lower level white collar employees. An adaptation by sociologists Brian K. William, Stacy C. Sawyer, and Carl M. Wahlstrom of Dennis Gilbert's class model gave the following description of the lower middle class:[5]

The lower middle class… these are people in technical and lower-level management positions who work for those in the upper middle class as lower managers, craftspeople, and the like. They enjoy a reasonably comfortable standard of living, although it is constantly threatened by taxes and inflation. Generally, they have a Bachelor's and sometimes Masters college degree.

Brian K. William, Stacy C. Sawyer and Carl M. Wahlstrom, Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships, 2006 (Adapted from Dennis Gilbert 1997; and Joseph Kahl 1993)[5]

Taking into account the percentages provided in the six-class model by Gilbert, as well as the model of Thompson and Hickey, one can apply US Census Bureau statistics regarding income. According to these class models the lower middle class is located roughly between the 52nd and 84th percentile of society. In terms of personal income distribution in 2005, that would mean gross annual personal incomes from about $32,500 to $60,000.[20] As 42% of all households, and the majority of those in the top 40%, had two income earners, household income figures would be significantly higher, ranging from roughly $50,000 to $100,000 annually.[13] In terms of educational attainment, 27% of persons had a Bachelor's degree or higher. If the upper middle and upper class combined are to constitute 16% of the population, it becomes clear that some of those in the lower middle class boast college degrees or some college education.[25]

Working class majority

According to some, the majority of Americans may also be correctly referred to as being members of the working class.[26] This use of the term "working class" is largely applicable if the nature of work becomes the main determinant of social class. After all, social class is the distribution of individuals among positions within society whose influence and importance differ. Thus the nature of a person's work and the associated degrees of influence, responsibility, and complexity determine, to a large degree, a person's social class. The more influence and responsibility a person has and the more complex his or her work, the higher his or her status in society.[27] As qualified personnel for relatively important, responsible, and complex occupations are scarce, income increases as well, following the economic principle of scarcity resulting in value. According to this approach, occupation becomes more essential in determining class than income.[27] Whereas professionals tend to create, conceptualize, consult and instruct, most Americans do not enjoy a high degree of independence in their work, as they merely follow set instructions.[8][26] Many of these working class workers are most commonly, due to their income, called middle-middle or statistical middle class. Class models such as the ones brought forth by Dennis Gilbert or Thompson and Hickey estimate that roughly 53% of Americans are members of the working or lower classes.[2][14]

It is the nature of their work and lack of influence that leads some to come to the conclusion that most Americans are working class. The majority of workers are not paid to share their thoughts and ideas as much as professionals. They are commonly closely supervised and do not enjoy a great deal of independence in their jobs. They are also not commonly paid to think, and their thoughts are not often sought by their employer organizations or clients, which leads to a lack of influence. A dentist's office offers itself as an example. The median annual earnings of salaried dentists were $136,960 in May 2006, indicating a high degree of scarcity for qualified personnel. The opinions and thoughts of dentists, much like those of other professionals, are sought after by their organizations and clients. The dentist creates a diagnosis, consults the patient, and conceptualizes a treatment.[28] Dental assistants made roughly $14.40 an hour, about $32,000 annually. Unlike dentists, dental assistants do not have much influence over the treatment of patients.[29] They carry out routine procedures and follow the dentists' instructions. As a result dental assistants may be referred to as being working class. Similar relationships can be observed in other occupations, such as between professors, journalists, and economists on the one hand, and their researchers on the other.

Vernacular middle class

The term middle class in more colloquial language use may refer to all those individuals who might at one point or another be identified as middle class, as they occupy neither extreme of the socio-economic strata. Most of those with households income between $40,000 and $95,000 identify as "middle class." The term can also be used to describe those at the actual center of the income strata, who may also be referred to as the middle-middle class. There are many different theories on the middle-middle class. The middle-middle class may be composed of those households with annual incomes of 80% to 120% of the national median household income. Persons in this income range could, in accordance to solely economic reasoning, be referred to as the American average. Such households would boast annual incomes ranging from $35,200 to $52,800, and thus be located in the middle of the income range.[13] Some of these households, while actually being in the middle and thus sometimes referred to as being middle class, cannot, however, afford the middle class lifestyle.[9] Yet another definition states that the statistical middle class includes all those households with income ranging from $25,000 to $100,000.[1] This is, however, a very vague definition, as it includes persons from all but the lowest quintile. Using this definition creates a class so economically fragmented that it would lump together those who are struggling to make ends meet with two incomes and those who are able to live the iconic middle class lifestyle with just one income and are highly educated.

Weberian definition

Some modern theories of political economy consider a large middle class to be a beneficial, stabilizing influence on society, because it has neither the possibly explosive revolutionary tendencies of the lower class, nor the absolutist tendencies of an entrenched upper class. Most sociological definitions of middle class follow Max Weber. Here the middle class is defined as consisting of professionals or business owners who share a culture of domesticity and sub-urbanity and a level of relative security against social crisis, in the form of socially desired skill or wealth. Thus the theory on the middle class by Max Weber can be cited as one that supports the notion of the middle class being composed of a quasi-elite of professionals and managers, who are largely immune to economic downturns and trends such as out-sourcing which affect the statistical middle class.[10]


Main article: Personal income in the United States

As social classes lack clear boundaries and overlap there are no definite income thresholds as for what is considered middle class. Sociologist Leonard Beeghley identifies a male making $57,000 and a female making $40,000 with a combined households income of $97,000 as a typical middle class family.[30] Sociologists William Thompson and Joseph Hickey estimate an income range of roughly $35,000 to $75,000 for the lower middle class and $100,000 or more for the upper middle class. Many social scientists including economist Michael Zweig and sociologist Dennis Gilbert contend that middle class persons usually have above median incomes. Template:Income in the US

Education and income

Educational attainment is one of the most prominent determinants of class status. As educational attainment represents expertise, which is a necessary component of the capitalistic market system, its ownership may be seen as the ownership of one of the factors of production.[11] In other words, those with advanced degrees already own one of the essential buttresses of the economy: expertise. Additionally educational attainment is basis for occupational selection. Those with higher educational attainment tend to be positioned in occupations with greater autonomy, influence over the organizational process, and better financial compensation. While economic compensation is merely the result of scarcity, educational attainment may be related to that very economic principle as well. The attainment of a graduate degree represents the acquisition of expertise, a factor of production, that in itself may be scarce; thus leading to better financial compensation for the owner.[11] As stated above, the upper middle class features a strong reliance on educational attainment (the ownership of expertise) for much of its social and economic well-being.[8][24] The following chart further explains the strong correlation between educational attainment and personal as well as household income.[12]

Criteria Overall Less than 9th grade High school drop-out High school graduate Some college Associates degree Bachelor's degree Bachelor's degree or more Master's degree Professional degree Doctoral degree
Median individual income Male, age 25+ $33,517 $15,461 $18,990 $28,763 $35,073 $39,015 $50,916 $55,751 $61,698 $88,530 $73,853
Female, age 25+ $19,679 $9,296 $10,786 $15,962 $21,007 $24,808 $31,309 $35,125 $41,334 $48,536 $53,003
Median household income $45,016 $18,787 $22,718 $36,835 $45,854 $51,970 $68,728 $73,446 $78,541 $100,000 $96,830

SOURCE: US Census Bureau, 2003[12]

Household income controversy

File:Distribution of two plus income households.svg

Percentage distribution of 2+ income households among the quintiles

Income is one of a household's attributes most commonly used to determine its class status. Yet, income may not always accurately reflect a household's position within society or the economy.[27] Unlike personal income, household income does not reflect occupational achievement as much as it measures the number of income earners. Sociologist Dennis Gilbert acknowledges that a working class household with two income earners may out-earn a single-income upper middle class household, as the number of income earners has evolved into one of the most important variables in determining household income. For example, according to the US Department of Labor, two registered nurses could quite easily command a household income of $126,000 annually,[31] while the median income for a lawyer was $94,930.[32] Furthermore, household income fails to recognize household size. For example, a single attorney, earning $95,000, may have a higher standard of living than a family of four with an income of $120,000. Yet household income is still a commonly used class indicator, as household members share the same economic fate and class position.[14]

The parade [of income earners with height representing income] suggest that [the] relationship between the distribution of income and the class structure is… blurred in the middle… we saw dual-income working class marchers looking down on single-income upper-middle class marchers. In sum, the class structures as we have defined it… does not exactly match the distribution of household income.

Dennis Gilbert, The American Class Structure, 1998


The influence of the middle class depends on which theory one utilizes. If the middle class is defined as a modern bourgeoisie, the "middle class" has great influence. If middle class is used in a manner that includes all persons who are at neither extreme of the social strata, it might still be influential, as such definition may include the "professional middle class," which is then commonly referred to as the "upper middle class." Despite the fact that the professional (upper) middle class is a privileged minority, it is the perhaps the most influential class in the United States.[8]

Most ideas that find their way into the cultural mainstream… are crafted by a relative elite: people who are well educated, reasonably well-paid, and who overlap, socially and through family ties, with at least the middling levels of the business community—in short, the professional middle class.

Barbara Ehrenreich

Several reasons can be cited as to why the professional middle class is so influential. One is that journalists, commentators, writers, professors, economists, and political scientists, who are essential in shaping public opinion, are almost exclusively members of the professional middle class. Considering the overwhelming presence of professional middle class persons in post secondary education, another essential instrument in regards to shaping public opinion, it should come as no surprise that the lifestyle exclusive to this quasi-elite has become indicative of the American mainstream itself. In addition to setting trends, the professional middle class also holds occupations which include managerial duties, meaning that middle class professionals spend much of their work-life directing others and conceptualizing the workday for the average worker.[8] Yet another reason is the economic clout generated by this class. In 2005, according to US Census statistics, the top third of society, excluding the top 5%, controlled the largest share of income in the United States.[13] Although some in the statistical middle class (for example, police officers and fire fighters in the more affluent suburbs in the San Francisco Bay Area) may have lifestyles as comfortable as those found among the ranks of the professional middle class, only few have the same degree of autonomy and influence over society as those in the professional middle class.[8] Other white collar members of the statistical middle class may not only be unable to afford the middle class lifestyle[9] but also lack the influence found in the professional middle class.[33]

Typical occupations

File:Salinas Office.jpg

Office buildings such as this are often the place of work for the vast majority of middle class Americans, whether they are upper middle class professional or lower middle class secretaries.

Note that according to the many different ways of sub-dividing the middle class, some of the occupations indicative of the professional middle class might be categorized as upper-middle or lower-middle.

As mentioned above, typical occupations for members of the middle class are those identified as being part of "the professions" and often include managerial duties as well, with all being white collar. There is great diversity among the occupations found among those living the middle class lifestyle, and the appropriateness of some occupations being placed here will depend on each individual’s personal outlook. The following is a list of occupations one might expect to find among this class: Professors (Post-secondary educators), Physicians, Engineers, Lawyers, Architects, Journalists, Mid-level corporate managers, Writers, Economists, Political Scientists, Urban planners, Financial managers, High school teachers, Senior Nurses, Pharmacists and analysts, etc...[8][34] Autonomy is often seen as one of the greatest measurement of a person's class status. Even though some working class employees might also enjoy largely self-directed work, large degrees of autonomy in the work place, as well as influence over the organizational process, which are commonly the results of obtained expertise, these can still be seen as hallmarks of upper middle class or professional middle class professions.[11]

As for the lower middle class, other less prestigious but just as good occupations, many sales positions, entry-level management, secretaries, etc., would be included.[35] In addition to professionals whose work is largely self-directed and includes managerial duties, many other less privileged members of the statistical middle class would find themselves in semi-independent to independent white collar positions. Many of those in the statistical middle class might work in what are called the professional support fields. These fields include occupations such as dental hygienists, and other professional and sales support.

Common salaries and job prospects


File:Suburban tract house.JPG

An upscale home in Salinas, California.

The American middle class, at least those living the lifestyle, has become known around the world for conspicuous consumption. To this day, the professional middle class in the United States holds the world record for having the largest homes, most appliances, and most automobiles. In 2005, the average new home had a square footage of 2,434 square feet (roughly 226 square meters) with 58% of these homes having ceilings with heights in excess of nine feet on the first floor. As new homes only represent a small portion of the housing stock in the US, with most suburban homes having been built in the 1970s when the average square footage was 1,600,[36] it is fair to assume that these large new suburban homes will be inhabited by members of the professional middle class. Overall, many social critics and intellectuals, most of whom are members of the professional middle class themselves, have commented on the extravagant consumption habits of the professional middle class. It is also often pointed out that the suburban lifestyle of the American professional middle class is a major reason for its record consumption. Many members of this class have feared that this consumption will lead to a gradual erosion of moral and ethical values. The increasing materialism, even among such a highly educated class, is also often claimed to be connected to the notion of rugged individualism which gained popularity among the ranks of the professional middle class in the 1970s and 80s.[8][34]

Academic models

Template:Social class in the US

Middle class squeeze

Further information: Income inequality in the United States

Increased inequality

File:Income gains.jpg

Inflation adjusted percentage increase in after-tax household income for the top 1% and the four quintiles, between 1979 and 2005 (gains by top 1% are reflected by bottom bar; bottom quintile by top bar).[37]

Income data indicate that the middle class, including the upper middle class, have seen far slower income growth than the top 1% since 1980.[38][39] While its income increased as fast as that of the rich in the years following the second World War, it has since experience far slower income gains that the top. According to economist Janet Yellen "the growth [in real income] was heavily concentrated at the very tip of the top, that is, the top 1 percent."[39] Between 1979 and 2005, the mean after-tax income of the top 1% increased by an inflation adjusted 176% versus 69% for the top 20% overall. The fourth quintile saw its mean net income increase by 29%, the middle income quintile by 21%, the second quintile by 17% and the bottom quintile by 6%, respectively.[37] The share of gross annual household income of the top 1% has increased to 19.4%, the largest share since the late 1920s.[40][41][42] As the U.S. is home to a progressive tax structure the share of net-income received by the top 1% is smaller, and the share of the middle class consequently larger, than their shares of gross pre-tax income. In 2004, the top percentile’s share of net income was 14%, 27.8% less than its share of gross income, but nonetheless nearly twice as large as in 1979, when it was clocked at 7.5%.[37] The reduced size of the share of aggregate share of income, both pre and after tax, of the middle class has been attributed to the reduced bargaining power of wage earning employees, caused by the decline of unions; a lessening of government redistribution;[43] and technological changes which have created opportunities for certain people to accumulate far greater relative wealth very quickly (including larger markets due to globalization and Information Age technologies allowing faster and wider distribution of work product).

Shrinking middle class

The notion that the middle class is shrinking is controversial because the economic boundaries that define the middle class vary. Households that earn between $25,000 and $75,000 represent approximately the middle half of the income distribution tables provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. Over the past two decades, the number of households in those brackets decreased by 3.9%, from 48.2% to 44.3%. During the same time period, the number of households with incomes below $25,000 decreased 3.5%, from 28.7% to 25.2%, while the number of households with incomes above $75,000 increased over 7%, from 23.2% to 30.4%.[44]

The change has not always been in the same direction. Poverty rates increased early in the 1980s until late in the 1990s when they started to go back down. Since 2000, the percent of all people living in poverty is up from 11.3% to 12.3% in 2006.[44]

A possible explanation for the increase in the higher earnings categories is that more households now have two wage earners.[45] However, a closer analysis reveals all of the 7% increase can be found in households who earn over $100,000.[44]

A study by Brookings Institution in June 2006 revealed that middle-income neighborhoods have dropped 17% from 1970 to 2000.[clarify]

As housing costs increase, the middle class is squeezed and forced to live in less desirable areas making upward mobility more difficult. Safety, school systems, and even jobs are all linked to neighborhood types.[46]

See also

  • Middle Class Millionaire


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External links

Social stratification: Social class
Bourgeoisie Upper class Ruling class Nobility White-collar
Petite bourgeoisie Upper middle class Creative class Gentry Blue-collar
Proletariat Middle class Working class Nouveau riche Pink-collar
Lumpenproletariat Lower middle class Lower class Old Money Gold-collar
Slave class Underclass Classlessness