Four middle classes from Pew Research

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.


14 thoughts on “Four middle classes from Pew Research

  1. The Satisfied Middle is young people with decent-paying (40k or so) jobs for a single person

    I’m about $7K short of that income level based on last year’s gross income from my taxes, and I’ve argued that I’d need at least $60K to replicate a proper middle class lifestyle with rent in a good neighbourhood, a decent car, cable television and annual vacations. Mind you, I live in a high cost of living area of the US, so I may be biased. I guess I’d have to define myself as struggling middle class, but that’s because I’m living off a nest egg that was left behind by other people. Without that, I’m just poor and overextended.

    FWIW, had both of my parents not passed away, and my mom taken SS at 62 as she originally planned, they would probably be in this category.


  2. I think that it’s that darned future orientation that is to blame for the anxiety. (But it is helpful in getting families into the middle class and keeping them there.)


    • With a kid scheduled to go to college in 4+ years, I do feel pretty anxious. If all goes according to plan (hometown college/mostly live at home) it shouldn’t be that bad for us, but we don’t really know how it’s going to go and until we find out, I feel like I’m holding my breath.

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  3. I’m definitely Anxious Middle class. My husband and I’ve experienced a lot of problems you’d expect from the Struggling Middle, but I suspect it happens a lot more to the other middle classes, too.

    When I looked at the stat portrait graph, I found the percentages for certain age groups to be very interesting across all stratifications. The Anxious Middle and Upper Middle share a lot in terms of age, education, and marital status. I posted the link in the other discussion because the data reveals very interesting patterns. It makes me wonder what else is going on with the middle class.

    I tried to find a more recent analysis, but it didn’t look like there was one.

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      • I don’t want to derail your nice thread (but maybe this is on topic?), but I have to mention that those modest 1970s homes that MM is so gaga over now cost a minimum of half a million dollars in MD suburbs with good public schools.

        Just because they were cheap 40 years ago doesn’t mean that they’re cheap now.

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    • The guy who’s terrible with money in the article she links to ( doesn’t seem to understand how “poor” you have to live to have thousands of dollars liquid at all times. Most people don’t have to live like that anymore because of cheap credit access, so they don’t. He didn’t, and he doesn’t seem to understand the connection at all.

      ETA: Ok I didn’t read his article far enough, but it touches on some of what gets discussed here. His wife was a film exec! and they “saved money on daycare” having her quit that job. @$@($@%&*@*

      So yeah, he does ultimately just refuse to get it.

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      • Definitely anxious middle here. It requires seasons of extreme penny pinching for us to put away something substantial regularly, and sometimes we let up on the pinching just because we need to. Besides that, I often joke that we are like Carl and Ellie from the Disney film Up:

        It’s always something…


        • I would say that we can expect an unavoidable $500 problem about quarterly (or in a good year twice a year), with an additional unavoidable $2,000 problem once a year.

          The amounts are very predictable. The surprise factor is that we never know what it is or when it’s coming–but it’s going to be either car, house or something medical,

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