My family’s household income is $US250,000 a year, but I promise you I am middle class. I live in a $US2 million dollar house, but I promise you I am still middle class. It has one story, doesn’t have a pool or its own movie theatre. It is a modest three-bedroom, two-bath.
Student Jesse Klein explains that she’s from Palo Alto, California, where the cost of living is higher than what she’s experienced in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her article goes on to explain how her reality of being middle class in one of the richest parts of California has given her trouble relating to the Michigan middle class, but it’s the assertion that $US250,000 is middle class anywhere that most stands out.
She’s right that the wealth in Silicon Valley is astounding. The median sale price of a home in Palo Alto in 2014 was $US2.2 million, and the median rent was around $US2,700 a month. Personal finance tool Mint determined that Palo Alto was home to some of 2014’s biggest spenders in the US, who spent an average $US345 per transaction.
Klein has stumbled upon a hot-button issue, as evidenced by the 175-and-counting comments on her article (most others have one or none at all) and Tweets comparing it to something that would appear on satire site The Onion.
While her assertions of middle class-dom clearly rub a lot of people the wrong way, US News & World Report points out, “there is no universally accepted definition of middle class.” Their best guess is that the American middle class earns somewhere between $US25,500 and $US76,500, based on the 2012 median household income of $US51,017. The mayor of New York City has declared the city’s middle class to earn $US47,040-$US97,020 for a single person and $US67,000-$US138,000 for a family of four.
Running her numbers through CNN Money’s “Are You Middle Class” tool, which looks at income by county, finds that the middle class income range for Santa Clara County, where Palo Alto is located, is $US70,529-$US112,385.
A 2014 New York Times poll found that 20% of Americans consider households earning $US200,000-$US300,000 a year to be “rich.”
Strictly by the numbers, it doesn’t look like Klein is part of the American middle class.
Another argument, and one more in line with Klein’s experience, is presented by The Economist as reported by Wall St. Cheat Sheet, which explains that historically, the middle class hasn’t been so much determined by its income (although its members have “a reasonable amount of discretionary income”) as by its attitude. A study reported by Bankrate found that middle-class Americans in particular find happiness not just in how much they make, but in how much they make compared to their neighbours. Attitude is much more subjective than money … meaning that a home without a movie theatre could be open to interpretation.
However, the more widespread approach of determining yourself to be middle class compared to those immediately around you has one key flaw (other than that it likely discounts much of the country): Research shows that comparing yourself to others makes you unhappy.