Politicians in both parties talk ad nauseam about how they want to “help the middle class,” “grow the middle class,” or “fight for the middle class.”
Based just on countless press releases and speeches, it would seem that helping the middle class (or fighting about who’s helping the middle class) is the most popular mission in Washington. Purely from a political perspective, that makes plenty of sense as 87 percent of Americans tend to identify themselves as middle class or working class. Very few identify as lower class or upper class, even if they are.
Aside from a political sound bite, who is in the so-called middle class? Is there anything that defines the group and differentiates it from others? The answers to those questions are famously fluid, but the American Enterprise Institute this week released a comprehensive survey of surveys looking at what “middle class” means to the public.
According to the study, the majority of Americans point to wages and income as the biggest factors in determining whether or not someone belongs to the middle class. Those financial factors were followed closely by employment, health insurance and college education.
A Pew survey from earlier this year found that about half of Americans identify themselves as middle class—and that people on average believe an annual income of $70,000 for a family of four is what it takes to lead a middle class lifestyle in their area. Meanwhile, the nation's median income hovers around $52,000. The Pew survey found that people believe a family of four would need an income of about $150,000 to be considered “wealthy” (try telling that to families living in major metropolitan areas like New York City).
The AEI report also offers a detailed look at how American families that identify with the middle class view their lives. While the majority said they were satisfied with their financial situations, they also said that life has gotten worse over the last decade.
About 72 percent said they were satisfied with their financial situation, and the majority of respondents said they think it is “very realistic” that they will be able to own a home, pay off their bills and balance work and family time.
At the same time, the majority said they are worried they won’t have enough to save comfortably for retirement or pay for their children’s college education.
Since politicians are so interested in helping the middle class, the survey asked respondents what kinds of policies they want their elected officials to pursue. The majority said they would prefer if officials pushed policies to increase overall economic growth to create more jobs rather than policies that make it easier for people to afford things like health care and education on a daily basis.
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