Who’s Middle and Upper Class in America Today?

The numbers don't match the perception.

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What does it even mean to be middle-class in America these days?

The Pew Research Center has put a financial definition to the term “middle income.” To be considered part of that group in 2021—which is synonymous with middle-class, according to Pew—a single American must have earned $30,003 to $90,010, according to a new set of reports released Wednesday.

But that range does vary by the size of the household. A three-person household must have earned $51,962 to $155,902 to be considered middle-class while a family of four must earn about $60,000 to $180,000.

This comes with a handy-dandy chart:

This is followed by a question none of you were asking because the answer is obvious:

Why the different ranges for different sizes of families? Smaller households typically require less income to support the same lifestyle as larger households, especially if that family includes children who don’t yet earn an income.

Regardless, while these numbers are useful for understanding medians, any measure of income stratification that doesn’t take into account the rather wide cost of living variation in the country is problematic. And, indeed, Pew acknowledges this:

Pew tends to update its definition of middle-class on an annual basis. The research released Wednesday is based on Pew’s analysis of the 2021 Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement, produced by the U.S. Census Bureau. Pew also has a calculator that’s updated periodically that lets readers enter where they live, how much they earn, and how many are in their household to get a more personalized definition of where they fall on the income spectrum.

But this calculator is suspect. Even with 6 people in the household (counting the college freshman who’s away but not the 22-year-old who’s on her own now) my wife and I combine to make enough to put us in the “upper income” range for the Northern Virginia suburbs. But so are 32 percent of the people in the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria region! It makes no sense to put the top third of households in the “upper income” category.

Conversely, if we somehow kept the same income but lived in the Anniston-Oxford-Jacksonville region of Alabama where I finished high school and college, we’d be in the top 15 percent. But our income would go considerably further, in that our house would be a quarter to a third the price and our tax burden would be considerably lower. Something doesn’t quite compute there.

And that’s to say nothing of the effective 5 percent pay cut we took because of runaway inflation.

Regardless, there’s a continuing gap between perception and Pew’s definition:

Even though incomes have continued to rise, those who can consider themselves middle-class (at least in a financial sense) have shrunk in the past five decades, according to Pew. About 61% of American adults were part of a middle-class family in 1971. Last year, it was just 50%, a level that has stayed fairly consistent since the Great Recession, according to Pew.

Not shockingly, the pandemic had a significant impact:

Yet the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic hit middle- and lower-income families harder financially, says Rakesh Kochhar, a senior researcher at Pew.

From 2010 to 2019, the median income for middle-class families (based on a household of three people) grew 15%, from $79,838 to $92,042. After the pandemic hit, incomes dropped about 2% in a single year, sending the median income down to $90,131 in 2020. Lower-income households experienced a similar rise and fall.

Thanks to this shift, the income gap between upper-class Americans and everyone else widened slightly, stemming largely from pandemic unemployment.

About 15% of Americans suffered some form of unemployment in 2020, with the biggest impact falling on lower-income households. About 14% of middle-class Americans lost their job in 2020, while about 8% of upper-income families experienced a similar income disruption. But a whopping 28% of lower-income Americans experienced joblessness at some point during the first year of the pandemic.

But the effects likely would have been much worse if the federal government had not provided enhanced unemployment benefits, which nearly one in five middle-class families received, according to Pew. “That likely put sort of a floor to how much incomes fell during this time period for lower- and middle-income families,” Kochhar said.

Likely? By definition.

Regardless, there’s obviously a significant data lag. The recession shutdowns ended a long time ago and the problems now are inflation and over-employment, which are of course related phenomena.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jen says:

    Not to mention the variation in cost of living in different regions. We are a two-person household, but $42K would be low-income here in NH, not middle income. The *median* home price in our county is $500K.

    If those numbers are gross income, we’re probably in the upper bracket as well, but as someone who is self-employed, I’d argue that sort of thing would figure into this as well.

  2. Mister Bluster says:

    Who’s Middle and Upper Class in America Today?

    Retired. Drawing Social Security. Small pension from the Labor Union. Part time job delivering the local free newspaper. My savings is a jar of pennies.
    Despite the fact that much of this is due to my own behavior I do have a pot to piss in and I’m
    Sitting on Top of the World!

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    There’s a bit of sloppiness going on. Three different things (income, class, lifestyle) are being treated as though they were one thing but they aren’t. If you’re upper income and derive your income from the ownership of assets, you’re upper class. If you’re middle income or greater and derive your income from wages for working at a job, you’re middle class.

    The difference is precariousness.

  4. CSK says:

    The terms middle-income and upper-income seem to me more accurate if we’re talking about just money. “Class” (loathsome word that it is) still carries, as far as I’m concerned, connotations of background, breeding, and behavior. Donald Trump is ostensibly upper-income. But he’s also most assuredly low-class in every other respect.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Dave Schuler: The difference is precariousness.

    Indeed. My wife and I are middle income, barely, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. And yet when the transmission in my truck went out last week and I was faced with a $3850* bill for a rebuild installed, it wasn’t the end of the world because I have savings for exactly these things. I still feel like were just scraping by but we’re definitely not scraping the bottom.

    *as it worked out, I didn’t need a rebuild after all, just a solenoid. Quality Transmission of STL comes thru again.

  6. Lounsbury says:

    @CSK: Silly political comment.
    Cultural class and economic class have always been differentiated. Thus the various centuries old aphorisms, stereotypes etc in multiple languages differentiating Old Money from New Money (or alternativel y Old Blood from New Blood for essentially the same effect not directly associated with money as such). Trump is simply the very picture of New Money. Of course some families remain New Money rather longer than others.

  7. CSK says:

    I’m well aware of the differentiation between cultural and economic class. That indeed was my point.

  8. Mister Bluster says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:..a $3850* bill for a rebuild installed

    I’m glad that you didn’t have to shell out the big bucks. I’m assuming it was an automatic transmission and not 3 on a tree. But I should never assume anything. These days a standard shift and clutch might not be much cheaper.
    When the 6 speed that came with my new 2013 Ford Fusion failed a few years ago (the car had well over 1oo,000 miles on it) my Ford dealer quoted me $5000 for a rebuilt transmission installed or $2000 for a “salvage yard” gear box with 50,000 miles on it that might have had a 30 day guarantee. Besides the fact that my penny jar can’t hold 500,000 coins the car wasn’t worth $5000 so I went with the junk yard shifter. That was several years and many miles ago.
    Still cruzin’ at 205,000 miles.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    But so are 32 percent of the people in the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria region! It makes no sense to put the top third of households in the “upper income” category.

    Why not? It is an affluent area and, by this definition, a third of the people are upper income. You can change the definition to take in cost of living, and while I agree that is a valuable exercise, it isn’t as simple as it sounds. How small an area should we use? State? County? Township? If we took, say, Saddle River, NJ, middle class might be $5M income per year and $20M in assets.

  10. Kurtz says:


    Silly political comment.
    Cultural class and economic class have always been differentiated.

    This is a subtle difference between UK and US culture wrt the relation between income, wealth, and class. So, no, not silly at all.

    If anything, your comment, which assumes objectivity in the comparison between cultures of socially defined concepts, is silly.

  11. Tony W says:

    The focus on income ignores wealth. They are not necessarily correlated.

  12. JohnSF says:

    My periodic reminder: Lounsbury is not a Brit.
    (He’s said so himself)

  13. Modulo Myself says:

    Wealth and envy in America are at hilarious levels now. People who make 3 million a year feel middle-class because they can’t afford to bid on crates of Chateau Petrus or Romanee-Conti at Christie’s. I’ve had enough conversations with the types of people who own houses in Newport and Boca Raton who have ‘rich’ friends who happen to own their own jets. Greed and envy are more common than oxygen now.

    So overall, I would say that genuine upper-class equals trust fund levels of wealth. And borderline upper-class means that you live very comfortably, and drop 100K in all of your grandkids college funds at birth, and help your children by guaranteeing leases and gifting them the dough to make a huge down payment on their first piece of property. Income doesn’t really tell the right story.

  14. Kurtz says:


    Ah, thanks. I missed your periodic reminders, as well as the detail given by @Lounsbury.

    To give a little bit of detail, this came up in History of the English Language, which I took in undergrad years ago.

    I am tempted to go down the research road on this particular subject, Mr. Bury’s birthplace notwithstanding. His argument about the cultural distinctions between New and old money is taken, but I suspect it may be a little more complicated than that.

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mister Bluster: I’m assuming it was an automatic transmission

    Yep, 4 wd, 1/2 ton Dodge with a 5.7 litre engine. It’s the transfer case… Well, that and my gravel drive… that stopped me from just throwing a used one in it. If I was gonna pay a shop to do it (Quality Transmission in STL, been using them for decades and never been sorry) I just figured the sunk cost demanded a rebuild that would be good for another 250K. I expect to be looking at a rebuilt/used engine in the next 100K or less but that I can manage on my own (with a little help from my eldest wrestling the new engine back in).

  16. just nutha says:

    It makes no sense to put…

    Respectfully, I will disagree. It makes perfect sense if we are living in the type of society dystopian films/novels of the 30s warned us about where the upper classes live together in cities in the sky, if you will, and the poor are also living together elsewhere. I think our society has achieved that sort of bifurcation. YMMV. Your opinion of whether that’s a bad thing may vary, too. Either way, it’s not surprising that bedroom community zones of the megalopolises that most urban zones are becoming will be composed mostly of people of a single economic strata–even if those bedroom zones consider themselves “cities” in their own right.

  17. just nutha says:

    “And that’s to say nothing of the effective 5% pay cut we took…”

    Yep. It’s tough being a snowflake these days, fer sher. But runaway inflation? REALLY?!!??

  18. just nutha says:

    @CSK: Indeed. But if he doesn’t criticize your semantics, he loses points in the MOU competition with an accompanying drop in ego power.

  19. CSK says:

    @just nutha:
    I bow to no one in terms of my command of semantics.

  20. JKB says:

    @Dave Schuler:There’s a bit of sloppiness going on. Three different things (income, class, lifestyle) are being treated as though they were one thing but they aren’t.

    This sloppiness always seems to arise. It likely stems from the 1349 Statute of Laborers enacted in England to control workers pay and movement after the Black Death. Modified over the centuries, it wasn’t repealed officially until 1869. Though wage fixing became less overt as the population recovered in the time of Elizabeth I, but other restrictions, such as references from current employer to change jobs continued as recently as the 2000s in Silicon Valley.

    (1350) The next year the statute [of Laborers] is made more elaborate, and specifies, for common laborers, one penny a day; for mowers, carpenters, masons, tilers, and thatchers, three pence, and so on. It is curious that the relative scale is much the same as to-day: masons a little more than tilers, tilers a little more than carpenters; though unskilled labor was paid less in proportion. The same statute attempts to protect the laborer by providing that victuals shall be sold only at reasonable prices, which were apparently fixed by the mayor. …

    Thorold Rogers tells us that those, after all, were the happy days of the laborer when masons got four pence a day, and the Black Prince, the head of the army, only got twenty shillings sixty times as much.

    It’s further confused as many of the “working” class are really ownership class as they own their business, and carpenters, mechanics, HVAC techs come to own their tools. But the average college grad shows up at their employer’s facility, to do the work their employer assigns them, using the tools their employer provides, in the manner their employer proscribes. But they would be loath to be labeled working class. Though many do earn a middle income.

    Then there are those as Orwell calls “shabby genteel” in Road to Wigan Pier, who live hand to mouth lives trying to put up a “middle class” lifestyle on a “working class” salary. Which ironically is what many 20-somethings try to do in high cost of living areas even though they make a good income in the national average.

  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    I am classless. (You’re welcome.)

    Poor AF until I was about 40. High income since then, but I have a certain genius for not holding onto money. Uneducated but part of the ‘creative class.’ Former criminal with no criminal record. I have expensive tastes in food and wine – but that comes from waiting tables and writing restaurant reviews, not a posh upbringing. At 67 my costume is still plain black t-shirt and sneakers though I have finally given up blue jeans. Even an experienced Maitre D’ wouldn’t know what to make of me.

    Somewhere between income class and cultural class is a class affinity, the identity politics of class. I ‘identify’ as working class. In a restaurant or hotel it’s the staff not the patrons for whom I have some fellow-feeling. And to this day, even as I finalize plans to spend two months in Europe, I expect to end up broke and living alone in a fleabag hotel.

  22. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    So according to Paul Fussell, you’re a member of Class X.

  23. JohnSF says:

    IIRC the older English definition of “middle class” was basically:
    Not a member of the landed aristocracy/gentry but of independent means.
    That could be by inheritance, or as an freeholder of a farm (as opposed to a tenant), or as a professional or tradesman.

    It was the non-dependency that was crucial (and why leasehold farmers were a grey area): it was widely accepted (at least by the privileged, of course) that an employee or tenant was expected to be socially and politically deferential to their employer or landlord.

    I think this was a similar attitude in the early US as well, for instance Jefferson’s(?) references to a middle class of yeoman farmers.

    The usage seems to have diverged later, as American employees were even less inclined to be deferential than British ones. And American usage became middle class = anyone not in poverty (and it seems some racial overtones as well).

    And the usage changed in Britain to, from the later 19th century on.
    But in a different way, which had a fuzzy division upper/middle/working bt often related more to property ownership than to employment.

  24. CSK says:

    I think it was W. H. Auden who was adamant that he was upper middle class, because his father was a doctor.

  25. MarkedMan says:

    Somewhere up above, someone talked about anxiety. I think most people think that if they are anxious about money then they cannot be upper income*. But from what I can tell most people are concerned about money regardless of their income level. And those that aren’t are usually one step away form a disaster, in the middle of one, or recovering from it, again, regardless of their income level. From Mr Micawber, a character in Dickens’ “David Copperfield”.

    Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six , result happiness.
    Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery

    I suspect my household income is in the same ballpark as James’, perhaps even somewhat less than, but unlike him I definitely consider us upper income. I think it is reasonable to say the top income level is one that only 20% attain. In the US (2020), that starts just under $150K annually. You could also limit it to top 10%. That kicks in at slightly under $200K. 5% puts you just shy of $350K, but I would argue that 5% takes you from “top” to “elite”.

    *Setting aside the fact that “upper income” is just a dividing number that is chosen to suit the researchers needs, and they get to define it however they want.

  26. Lounsbury says:

    @CSK: No, you in fact made a boring political posturing with a transparently empty pretence that some how there is some change in meaning: ““Class” (loathsome word that it is) still carries, as far as I’m concerned, connotations of background…”
    @Kurtz: my comment assumes no such thing at all. It merely observed that the differentiation of cultural class and economic class is as old and older than the terms, from the very start indeed. That says nor implies literally nothing about such things bring “objective” reality, really the contrary.@Kurtz: Mr Lounsbury my dear, not Mr Bury, family name to be precise. The point to be clear is not about cultural distinction between new or old money but the distinction of cultured versus monies is old and a boring pretence to deviate to swipe at The Short Fingered Vulgarian rather emptily. As if every bloody subject needs to have such mention.

  27. CSK says:

    What in hell are you talking about? Your command of English really does leave a lot to be desired.

  28. JohnSF says:

    Yes that would the argument that professionals (lawyers, doctors etc) and freehold farmers were more truly “independent” than tradesmen/artisans/shopkeepers.
    Exactly why …?

    Another thought occurs: the difference in usage UK vs US might have a basis in different early Victorian period society threefold divides:
    UK – (hereditary) upper class, middle class, working class
    US – (more fluid) upper class, middle class, slaves.
    The massive social cleavage of slave vs free, and its considerable continuation in racial division, entailed a degree of extreme subordination of the slaves that made distinctions of dependence among non-slaves relatively less prominent, and also any implication of similar dependency extremely repugnant to white working class.

    Interestingly, a lot of European countries tend have a roughly fourfold default class division: aristocracy, bourgeois, peasant, worker.
    Which again does not map directly onto the British or American patterns.

    And neither does the threefold economic (aka Marxist) categorisation:

  29. CSK says:

    Michael Korda once observed that class distinctions in the U.S. were more subtle than those in England.

  30. Gustopher says:

    The focus on income numbers — top N% and then argue about how big of an area — misses a lot.

    I think it’s better to focus on what a middle class lifestyle is, and then work backwards to the income required to reach it. It also shows whether the middle class is shrinking.

    A big part of that is setting up the kids for success, which means a house in a good school district (or enough money for a private school) and enough money for the kids’ college or trade school. With housing prices in good school districts going way up, and more of the burden of higher education being left to the families, that cuts away at the middle class.

    And you need enough extra income that you can afford to retire. Which also ends up meaning enough money to weather emergencies (can’t save for retirement if you keep spending all the savings on emergencies).

    (We can quibble about whether you need to own a house to be middle class — in theory, I would say that access to housing is good enough, but with the increases in rents in so many areas I think ownership might be required just to lock in those housing costs)

    Why the different ranges for different sizes of families? Smaller households typically require less income to support the same lifestyle as larger households, especially if that family includes children who don’t yet earn an income.

    Counter-argument: there are people who don’t have kids, or have fewer than they would like, because they can’t afford to.

  31. Beth says:


    I think it is reasonable to say the top income level is one that only 20% attain. In the US (2020), that starts just under $150K annually. You could also limit it to top 10%. That kicks in at slightly under $200K. 5% puts you just shy of $350K, but I would argue that 5% takes you from “top” to “elite”.

    Something about this seems off to me and I think it’s the issue of “wealth” mentioned above. By way of comparison, my Partner and I laughingly call ourselves “lower upper middle class”. Together we pull in about 200k (not including her benefits, which I would value at like 50-70k). We live quite comfortably, but somewhat precariously. Not in the sense that if something bad happened we’d be doomed, just in the sense that we would drop from lower upper to just middle. Most of that precariousness is because we are both terrible with money. What we don’t have is much of any wealth. We have a bit of equity in a house and she has a small retirement account. Income comes in, income goes out, no real wealth gets built.

    Maybe somewhat amusingly given the discussion of the English class system. My dad was raised decidedly middle class (in the English sense) in Peterborough. What he learned through trauma about being middle class in that setting he instilled through terror in his children. Unfortunately, he didn’t teach any of the skills of getting and maintaining a middle class lifestyle, especially in an American sense. This created profound problems for himself and his children (see, poor money management skills).

    @Mister Bluster:

    I had a 2003 Mini Cooper with 150,000 on it when the clutch went out. The quote was $5k to replace just the clutch. It was right before we had real money, so it rotted away on our driveway for a couple of years before Kars-4-Kids dragged it away for me. I was so bummed.

  32. Neil Hudelson says:


    You have this habit of sounding like a complete nincompoop while insulting others for their completely correct and intelligent comments. You chastised multiple commenters for saying “Ukraine” instead of “The Ukraine,” even though “The Ukraine” is wrong. You criticized Kathy for even asking a question relevant to the thread, only to find people actually knowledgeable in the subject found Kathy’s question to be entirely appropriate, and found your response left a lot to be desired. And here you try very hard to insult multiple people, only to betray that you don’t really have a firm grasp on the English language.

    Have you considered not doing this?

  33. Jen says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Adding “Have you considered not doing this?” to my list of go-to comebacks. That’s a keeper!

  34. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    “…I have a certain genius for not holding onto money.”

    Wealth is disease…And I am the cure.

    With apologies to David Bromberg.

  35. Kurtz says:


    Oh puh-leeze. To get the frivolity out of the way, the ‘Mr. Bury’ line was a bit of fun for me. As intelligent as you demonstrate yourself to be, you have a tendency to take your views as if they are as serious as a terminal diagnosis, and everyone else’s as a diagnosis of the clap delivered by Dennis the Menace, MD. But this flap suggests that you take your pedigree just as seriously.

    There is some bit of irony in this discussion in that you drew a distinction without a difference then doubled down on it. Notice @CSK:

    “Class” (loathsome word that it is) still carries

    (double emphasis, because if I just bold it, you may miss it a third time.)

    Still, as in, occurring now as it has in the past.

    Sorry, but labeling it as “political” only when used by someone of an opposing view is beneath your intelligence. I mean, your post hinged on ignoring the key word in OP. It conveys defensiveness which perhaps points to the source of your oft-displayed haughtiness. Tilting at windmills says a hell of a lot more about the person than the windmill.

    Stay classy, Mr. Lounsbury.

  36. Kurtz says:


    Thank you. As usual, you contribute an enormous amount of helpful information to the discussion.

    It seems, at least in America, that what one means by class is driven, at least in part, by one’s perception of one’s own status in relation to others. For those without, class is largely about things; for those with, it’s largely about manner. But to describe the thing(s) or the specific character of manner can only be apprehended by looking to the condition of the speaker.

    Trump is merely the easiest, well-known example.

  37. Scott says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Aristotle was not Belgian. The London Underground is not a political movement.

  38. Kathy says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    It seems you’d never before met someone who acts as though they are never wrong.


    I thought the latter was a rock band.

  39. Neil Hudelson says:


    No no, I’ve been on the Internet before today :).

  40. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: My dad was a career enlisted soldier who rose to GS-12 in his early 50s. We were a one-income household. I would have put us at lower middle class most of that time and would say he was solidly middle class by the end. My wife is a GS-14 and I’m functionally the same but at a higher step because I’ve been in the system longer. We’re certainly comparably affluent. But there’s no sense in which we’re “upper class” is this area.

  41. Kathy says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    You were very lucky until then.

  42. Gustopher says:


    Sorry, but labeling it as “political” only when used by someone of an opposing view is beneath your intelligence.

    I’m not sure Mr. Berry’s intelligence has been confirmed as being anything above the baseline plus a much suffering thesaurus.

  43. just nutha says:

    @Gustopher: As this topic opened, I was reminded of an article that I read while I was in Korea (so more than a decade ago) suggesting that there were (about) 7 things (statistically) middle class people could no longer afford. I agree that we should start from a baseline of economic abilities and work the other direction. Sadly, the things listed from the article–qualify for a mortgage to buy your own house, purchase a new car, go on a trip for a vacation, help your children pay for higher education, set aside money to retire, and such are goals that even some people in the survey’s upper income cohort will only dream about doing (I’m reminded of a proposal from Wisconsin, IIRC, suggesting almost a decade ago that the income qualification for financial aid should be raised to a quarter million dollars). We are sooooo hosed.

  44. JohnSF says:


    “For those without, class is largely about things; for those with, it’s largely about manner. “

    I am so stealing that!

    Very perceptive, I think.
    IMO, despite our different definitions of “middle class”, also true for Britain and England.
    The heart of group-defined status and self image is more “style” than “money”.
    And there is a massive amount of English literature, and especially comedy, about the contrast of the “broke but posh” vs the “well-off but vulgar”.
    Suspect the same for the the US, but not familiar enough with American literature.

    Thinking about it, I think this was a trope in ancient Rome for that matter: old senatorial families vs the “new money” plebeian financiers.

    And IIRC, recalling my earlier comments re. sociological impact of a slave society, Southern planters tried very hard to give themselves airs as “gentry” versus the “vulgar” northern commercial class, which annoyed the latter no end.
    And the Boston Brahmins repaid the sentiment redoubled.

    A similar, but socially different because “external”, role in the UK may have been the relation of the old aristocracy to imperialism and the armed forces.

  45. Gustopher says:

    @just nutha: you need good metrics to change anything. Otherwise, you don’t recognize whether or not you are hosed.

    Anyway, the percentage of households in the top 20% of households by income remains flat.

  46. CSK says:

    There’s a line in Gone with the Wind about how the army of southern aristocrats would whip a race of vulgar dollar-lovers like the Yankees in no time flat.* Didn’t quite work out that way, did it?

    *I’m just brimming over with literary allusions today.

  47. JohnSF says:

    @James Joyner:

    It makes no sense to put the top third of households in the “upper income” category.

    I don’t know.
    If you are splitting upper/middle/lower dividing by thirds, and having top third = upper, sort of makes sense, on strict logic basis.

    Though maybe it’s better to split by order of magnitude (or similar multiplier):
    Say (using arbitrary numbers here) group averaging
    10k = lower class;
    100k = middle class;
    1m = upper class;
    10m = “modestly well off, doncha’ know”

  48. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: My parents started as dirt farmers in rural Ireland and my father was a tradesman in the US. My mother cleaned houses and waited tables. But we never went hungry and four kids attended private Catholic schools, although we all started working before we were 16 and paid for our own clothes and chipped in for HS tuition once we were working. We lived in a nice working class suburb of Chicago in a 1400 sq foot bungalow, although my father finished the full basement beautifully so it was really significantly larger. I felt we were solidly middle class and still do. There were as many families below us on the economic rung as above us, as near as I could tell.

    From my point of view, which I don’t feel is any more or less correct than your point of view, you and I can be considered upper income. If you drew a 50 mile circle around each of us 9/10ths of the people have less household income than us. But I certainly recognize that neither of us could be classified as “rich” which, to me, is the top 1% (incomes over $3M)

  49. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: By the way, I don’t really have a frame of reference for “upper class”. Class isn’t something I’m in tune with. So my comments apply to “upper income” only.

  50. JohnSF says:

    Well, when a group is used to whipping people who can’t fight back, tends to lead them to over-estimate themselves.

    See also European aristocracies re. peasants in revolt; English industrialists re. trade unions; British (and other) empires vs loads of people.

    Russian elites vs Ukrainians is actually pretty pertinent to current affairs, for that matter.
    Ukrainian culture, as I’ve remarked before hereabouts, is massively marked by a legacy of intertwined ethnic/”class” antagonisms relating to chattel serfdom as well as more recent events.
    See the life of Taras Shevchenko for an example.

  51. just nutha says:

    @JohnSF:Of course, the real problem in American versions of lower/middle/upper class may well be that segments of the upper class prefer to think of themselves as middle class because living beyond their means (in the Mr. Micawber sense mentioned earlier) makes their lives precarious. At least that’s my brother’s theory on the question.
    But we were raised (at least after our mother joined the workforce) as working class in economic outlook but middle class in asset level and purchasing power. (And into the second year of my college education, I moved into the *rich* category as I was paying for my own private school education with my college job and also generating savings.)

  52. CSK says:


  53. JohnSF says:

    @just nutha:
    Remember a comment on the view of wealth among the London upper middle class:
    “It’s the haves versus the have yachts.”

  54. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Beth: Sorry to hear that. All the years I had manual transmissions I did the clutches myself, the job is really pretty straightforward. I have no idea about part prices for MiniCoopers, but I can’t see a new clutch plate, pressure plate, throwout bearing and resurfaced flywheel* costing more than $1000 so that leaves $4K for labor which certainly sounds high but I’d bet donuts to dollars the engine has to come out too so… shrug… $5K might not be so out of line.

    *I’m assuming the flywheel can be resurfaced, but it might be that MC makes them throw away.

  55. Kari Q says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Wealth and envy in America are at hilarious levels now. … Greed and envy are more common than oxygen now.

    Genuinely curious why you say “now?” I don’t think there was a time during my life when it was different and I am highly skeptical that there was ever a time in the history of the United States when it was. Do you believe that it was not always that way? If so, when do you think it changed?

  56. Beth says:


    That’s basically it. It was like $500 in parts and the rest in labor. The engine had to come out and if I remember correctly, part of the front end had to be disassembled to get it out. I loved that car. Whenever I feel like getting in trouble, I’ll poke at my Partner by mentioning how much I want to get one. I get the same dirty look everytime.

  57. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Beth: Yeah, if one has to remove the engine, removing the front clip is often a good idea, just to get shit out of the way. On my truck, I’d certainly remove the radiator and maybe a few other things but probably not the whole clip. On an MC? I’ve never looked under the hood of one but I can imagine things are so tight in there that replacing the serpentine belt requires removing everything BUT the engine.

  58. JohnSF says:

    IIRC the Mini post-2002 are all cam chain rather than belt.
    But for sure you have to take almost everything else out of the bay to replace.
    It’s bit of a pig on my SEAT Ibiza; but at least you don’t have to shift the radiator, LOL.
    Ibiza is belt: trust me, chain is better. In theory chain can last as long as the engine itself.

    I think the Mini changed from torque converter auto to DSG dual clutch in 2007 (?)
    So Beth, why not pitch that it ain’t the same now?
    (My DSG box is from 2009 and still happy. Mind you the engine ain’t. LOL. Ouch.)

  59. Mimai says:

    This topic makes me think of an oft-enlightening discussion question:

    What is something that you are unreasonably frugal about and unreasonably profligate about?

    Responses tend to speak to issues of income, class, upbringing, etc. Current and past. Perceived, desired, and real.

  60. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JohnSF: A few years after I finished school, I found myself in the market for a new car. Had an income level that would have allowed me to buy a Jaguar sedan (but not a V-12, I think the model number was XJ6 but not sure anymore). Thought about it a while but ended up buying an R-5 with a canvas roof so that I had the other 1o or 12 grand for something else. Working class mentality strikes again. The canvas roof made the R-5 a convertible–sort of–and it was a more fun ride. Close enough for a blue-collar guy.

  61. Beth says:


    Lol, I’ll try that next time I want to get in trouble. Right now it’s less a money issue and more of a practicality issue. We’re a family of four and my son is going to be over 6ft by the time he’s a teenager at this pace. The thought of us cramming into what is effectively a two seater is a non-starter.

    The only upside to this particular marital cold-war is that she’s right, it’s nice to only have one car payment and one car insurance payment on what is basically a tank; a Toyota Camry.

  62. Beth says:


    unreasonably frugal about

    Basically nothing. Frugality wasn’t a virtue in my family growing up. Excess and spending more than the last dollar you had were a virtue. My parents came into money when I was a teenager and then burned every last dollar they could. I’m terrible with money, but at least I’ve kinda sorta taught myself to be slightly better.

    unreasonably profligate

    Food, not wasteful, but profligate. Concerts, raves, and my new hobby, festivals. Experiences. Hanging out with friends.

  63. Mister Bluster says:

    Disclaimer: I am hoping to stay on topic*.
    The times that I actually pinched my fingers on motors and transmissions was when I couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do the work. You know…*no income broke. I needed the ride to start and run properly. It wasn’t because I wanted to crawl under my 13 year old 1960 F-100** in the rain to change the throwout bearing, I just didn’t want to hitchhike back and forth to work. The good thing about that truck was that it sat high enough off the ground so that I didn’t have to jack it up. Another good thing was that the 3 speed transmission was not much bigger than a two slice toaster and I was able to manhandle it while I was laying on my back to get it out of the way and reach the bearing. At least that is my memory.

    **I always get a chuckle when I see that gas tank filler cap right behind the driver side door. Can’t count how many packs of butts I choked on running down the road with gallons of regular gasoline sloshing around in the tank behind the bench seat just inches from my 20 something beer soaked physique.

  64. Kurtz says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    I always get a chuckle when I see that gas tank filler cap right behind the driver side door. Can’t count how many packs of butts I choked on running down the road with gallons of regular gasoline sloshing around in the tank behind the bench seat just inches from my 20 something beer soaked physique.

    Not taking anything away from your current status, but it sounds like you were a hell of a fun hang back then.

  65. Kurtz says:


    What is something that you are unreasonably frugal about and unreasonably profligate about?

    Frugal: anything necessary
    Profligate: anything unnecessary

  66. Kurtz says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: @Beth:

    costing more than $1000 so that leaves $4K for labor which certainly sounds high but I’d bet donuts to dollars the engine has to come out too so… shrug… $5K might not be so out of line.

    It’s definitely not out of line. Aaaaanddd that’s what I get for scrolling up rather than down–joining the conversation after people confirmed.

    @JohnSF proceeds to give more detail about MINIs. We used to joke that if my Dad didn’t know something, we could just call his brother Gus, and he would know. My new approach is to ask John, even if both of my family members are still alive and accessible.

    Side note: the Clutch Master Cylinder in my Infiniti went kaput a few days ago. It initially seemed straightforward. And it was, until I tried to get the bastard out. The ABS unit prevents easy removal by maybe an inch.

  67. Kurtz says:


    I am so stealing that!

    I’m cool with that. But if it makes it more exciting for you, feel free to pretend you’re stealing it.

  68. Jax says:

    @Mimai: Things I’m frugal about….up to a point, anyways…clothes. Indoor clothing is unnecessarily expensive, when I can get the same stuff if I hit the thrift store regularly. That said….I’m not afraid to spend some money on good socks, underwear and bra’s (household of women 😉 ) and our outdoor clothing. Mostly because it’s effing cold where we live and I’ve gone the frugal route and regretted it.

    Profligate….food and kitchen appliances. We don’t have any restaurants in my town except one mexican food place and a couple gas stations, I am not afraid to buy stuff online to pretend I’m eating fancy food, even if I’m making it myself.

  69. JohnSF says:

    You could always try the Mini Countryman JCW; sort of not really very mini at all, but damn quick.

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Ah, but which R5?
    Guessing the Renault, not the Audi?
    Probably a wise choice; Jags of that vintage have a rep. for being money pits.

  70. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: That makes sense. Certainly, 40 years ago I’d have considered people with my lifestyle “upper class.” Now, I tend to think that everyone within a standard deviation from the median as “middle class” and those below that as “lower class” and those above it as “upper class.” That puts just under 70 percent of the population in the “middle,” which is probably weird but is pretty much how Americans tend to think of it as most people call themselves “middle class.”

  71. Jen says:


    Unreasonably frugal: a number of things. I rinse & reuse most ziploc-style bags (nothing that held raw meat gets reused, but most other things…if I can clean it, I reuse it); I reuse aluminum foil too. I hold on to tee shirts longer than reasonable.

    Unreasonably profligate: skin care. I am a sucker for high-end skin care products and am at the Sephora VIB Rouge level because of it.

  72. JohnSF says:

    And to prove that our derailing onto cars was not really a derail at all 🙂
    In Britain anyway, cars have been valued almost as much as social signifiers, as means of transport.
    Certain makes are considered “prestige”: German ones, mainly.
    Back when number plates were more easily distinguished by year, a newer model was also significant.
    And when the company car was more a thing, there were exquisite gradations of trim level linked to rank and seniority, LOL.
    Less prominent now more people get cars on lease/purchase deals.
    And some types of cars have social prestige for that matter; used to be saloons vs hatchbacks, shifted around the 1990’s to 4wd/SUV as the premium type.

    Interesting thing: the old gentry are generally not bothered about social cachet of cars, and liable to drive round in beaten up old Land Rovers or ancient Subarus. Similar to the aristos notorious indifference to fashion in clothes.
    Not signalling as means of signalling?

    Also curious: the French as a nation seem generally indifferent to cars as social indicators.
    It seems to me near impossible to tell anything about a French person from what they drive; at least, outside Paris.
    Paging Harvard Law!
    Be interesting to know if this is his experience re. the French.

  73. CSK says:

    What you say about cars and clothing is generally true of New England bluebloods as well.

  74. Mister Bluster says:

    @Kurtz:..fun hang…

    There was a time when I would smoke a cigarette, drink a beer, roll a joint and drive with my knees as I was running into town on Friday after work.
    These days I am just grateful when the local Panera stays open for regular hours instead of closing at 2pm due to lack of help.
    I thought about signing on with them til I found out I would have to remain standing without a break for a 3 hour shift. My knees are shot from climbing telephone poles for 35 years. It would probably be less stressful to knock over gas stations if I really need the extra cash.

  75. MarkedMan says:


    What you say about cars and clothing is generally true of New England bluebloods as well.

    My impression is that EWR England old money values quality in clothes and would never, ever wear anything that advertised the designers name or logo on it. But considering my social circle, my impression may not be worth much.

  76. CSK says:

    Oh, quality clothing indeed. But you wear it forever.