March 12, 2018

How Much Does the Middle Class Earn?

What does it mean to be “middle class” in America? The answer to this question has significant policy implications but lacks a definitive answer. Some insight comes from looking at income quintiles. One common definition of middle class includes only the middle quintile; another common definition includes the middle three quintiles.

According to census data from 2016, the middle income quintile (spanning the 41st to 60th percentiles) contains households earning between $45,600 and $74,869. The middle three income quintiles (21st to 40th percentiles, 41st to 60th percentiles, and 61st to 80th percentiles), however, contain households earning between $24,002 and $121,018.

The definition of a middle class income becomes more complicated when considering location and cost of living as well. A household income of $75,000 in the heartland provides a different standard of living than the same income in Los Angeles or New York City. Ultimately, this complexity may prevent national measures of income from truly defining the middle class.