There has been some really fascinating and informative discussion in the comments recently about education, class and child rearing, among other things. And it turns out a few years back (2008) Pew Research split up the people who call themselves middle class in America (53% of Americans) into four groups, which mostly explain some of the crosstalking going on.
That’s the link to the report and discussion, and there’s also a link to download the data used as well at the end.
But their four classes map to some assumptions that I know were governing my view of “middle class”. The labels they use are Top of the Class, Anxious Middle, Satisfied Middle and Struggling Middle.
The “Top of the Class” is what I’ve always thought of as middle-middle class or very lowest entry-level upper-middle class. Two married professionals with a kid or two, at least one has a power career, but both might. Often reliant on mom having credentials and often higher than median income to navigate their complex systems for schooling and career entry/access. Pew thinks of this class as primarily male, but that may well be because it includes some part-time working wives or wives whose job is to “stay home” but really navigate the system full time.
The Anxious Middle is where our household is, and I think Pew doesn’t understand that it’s probably where most of your IT-worker households are represented. This group can earn well, but mostly doesn’t crack 100K nearly as often as the paired-off professionals do. And IT is a historical-quirk industry, many of the men in it are painfully aware that they simply could not earn at that level in a pre-IT world and might struggle to even marry, much less earn enough to comfortably support a family. So there’s a constant status anxiety to go with the volatility within the industry, where it’s hard to lock in a job for more than a few years at a stretch and there’s endless pressure to reskill or retrain. Lower down the income band for this class is very likely the remnants of the blue collar workforce with solid but lowish earnings and great benefits. This is also where some of the struggling SAHM households are, where Dad makes what both consider “middle class” money, but they are constantly crunched and pinched on one income.
The Satisfied Middle is young people with decent-paying (40k or so) jobs for a single person and retired folks who live a kingly or queenly life on their 2k-3k/month pensions. Almost half this group receives a pension or Social Security income. And what’s left are happy because their incomes do them very well as single and childless folks or merry widows, etc.
The Struggling Middle is basically striving single mothers and married low-income families who don’t use much welfare. This is where a fair number of the people who reject food stamps but make very little and easily qualify are. And another chunk of the struggling SAHMs.
It’s been nearly a decade since this analysis was done, but it helps clarify where people are when they think of middle class. I was clearly thinking only two of these four groups were middle class at all.