The New York Times last week ran a piece called What Middle-Class Families Want Politicians to Know, which featured interviews from a number of Americans, discussing their economic concerns and fears. The thing is, the large majority of the households represented in the piece have a six-figure income; while there is one fellow whose reported household income is $75k – $100k annually, the rest have incomes between $120k and $400k.
And, well. In terms of income, “middle class” has a specific meaning (at least, it does to Pew Research, whose definition I’m using here): It means you earn between 67% and 200% of median household income. In the US nationally, that’s between about $40k and $120k a year — which means that nationally speaking, all but one of the “middle class” households in this piece aren’t middle class at all, they’re above that. In specific cities and areas, that “middle class” range moves, sometimes considerably — for example, in super-expensive San Francisco, “middle class household income” is $67k to $200k, whereas in rural Darke County, Ohio, where I live, that range would be between $33.5K and $100k.
When you put that local filter on these reported incomes, what you get is that some of these folks actually are middle class — but most them are in the upper half of that category, and the rest are above the category entirely. The family in Cupertino, CA with a $150k income is indeed middle class, because the median household income in the Land of Apple is $135k. Likewise the family from Stow, MA, who reports an upper range of $200k, because the median income is even higher at $137k. Ironically the fellow in Auburn, GA who reports the high end of his income as $100k is only barely within the upper bound of the “middle class” for his area, because Auburn’s median income is $54k. But the person from Wyomissing, PA reporting a $200k – $400k range is well-off no matter how you slice it: The median income there is $78k. Likewise the one from Austin, MN, who reports the same high range of income where the median income is $48k, and the ones in Kansas City, reporting a low end of $120k where the median household income is $45k.
So, yeah. The New York Times is putting its finger on the scale, here, in terms of reporting what the “middle class” is thinking. The paper interestingly printed a justifying followup on the people and families they included in the piece, which amounts to “we needed to find diverse people in different geographical areas who also had quotable things to say,” which adds context but doesn’t really change the math. Ultimately the NYT is appears to be defaulting back to “if you feel middle-class, you are,” no matter what the numbers actually say about it.
What I think is more interesting, and telling, and concerning, and what the NYT is eliding by insisting these folks represent the “middle class,” is that these are folks who are either in the upper tranches of the middle class or the lower-to-middle tranches of “upper income” — the reported income of the family in Pennsylvania might gain it entry to the 1% for that state — and they are still feeling incredibly economically vulnerable. Back in my day, harumph harumph, being upper middle class or above meant you that while you were not immune to the vicissitudes of the American economy, you had some underlying stability to your situation — you still had to pay your bills and mortgage but you didn’t worry about if you could pay your bills or mortgage. The folks the NYT is visiting are all nervous; they’re waiting for their necks to be on the chopping block. And while we must acknowledge that it’s the choice of the NYT to highlight these particular stories, I don’t think the NYT’s choice of these stories is unrepresentative of folks in these income levels today.
What changed? Well, lots of things, but I think we know some real big ones: Health care, housing and education costs, particularly in urban areas, are all manifestly more expensive today than they were 30 or 40 years ago, and the average American household carries more debt than it did even a couple of decades back (all adjusting for inflation). So even when people are making better than average incomes, their outgoes — in terms of mortgage payments, college loans, medical and other debt — are taking a bigger share of that money.
The security that higher-than-average incomes used to bring is now diminished by how we as a nation have chosen to build our current economy. And while it’s easy for the intentionally obtuse to tut-tut and suggest people just need to stop drinking Starbucks or eating avocado toast or whatever, a coffee and guacamole-free life will not change the fact that we have built the economy for the rich, not the middle — more to the point, we’ve created an economy for people who can carry debt with minimal impact on their day to day lives, or can afford not to take on debt at all. As a result of that, the income level at which economic insecurity becomes a real and daily issue looks to be getting higher as we go along. This is fixable, mind you. But weirdly there’s not a lot of will at the moment to fix it.
And so we have the spectacle of ostensibly well-off people waiting for the other shoe to drop. They’re not wrong to worry. And that is what should be worrying the New York Times, and everyone else.