Where do I fall in the American economic class system?
When asked how they identify their social classes, 73% of Americans say they belong to the middle or working classes, according to one survey.
- By Jessica Walrack,
- U.S. News & World Report
- – 02/27/2023
Understanding where you fall in the American economic class system isn't as simple as pulling out a calculator or looking at a pay stub.
Myriad forces shape individuals' economic classes and their views on where they rank among other Americans. Keep reading to find out more about how Americans view themselves economically.
How Americans identify their social classes
Seventy-three percent of Americans say they belong to the middle or working class, according to an April 2022 survey from Gallup.
Fourteen percent identify themselves as upper-middle class and 2% categorize themselves as upper class. In determining their social classes, people often don't think only about income, experts say, but about other factors like education, location and family history.
When it comes to defining the middle class, Jeffery M. Jones, senior editor at Gallup, says, "It’s more of a feeling. It’s about economic security, being able to afford what you need but then also maybe a bit beyond the basics. Maybe vacations, something extra recreational, a third car, money to do things beyond what you need to live."
Economic trends may impact how people view their class rankings
In recent years, economic trends such as high rates of inflation, waves of employee resignations, struggling small businesses and other effects of COVID-19 have impacted the wealth and health of workers and businesses.
According to the Gallup survey, however, Americans' perspectives on where they stand hasn't changed since 2020, which indicates that COVID-19 didn't have a significant effect on how Americans view their class positioning.
We may see that shift, however.
After a year with the highest inflation rates since 1982, declining stock market values and steadily rising interest rates, 50% of Americans say they are "financially worse off" than the previous year, according to a January 2023 Gallup poll.
Since Gallup introduced the poll in 1976, half or more Americans have reported being worse off only twice – in 2008 and 2009.
In general, much of today's political rhetoric focuses on the challenges facing the middle class. And although household incomes have risen over the past 50 years or so, it took more than 15 years for them to regain their 2000-level incomes and recover from the short-lived 2001 recession and longer Great Recession, Richard Fry, senior researcher for Pew Research, says.
"The 15-year period of stagnation was an episode of unprecedented duration in the past five decades,” he says.
According to Fry, meager income gains likely have contributed to feelings of frustration and downward mobility. And while most American households are doing better than they were 50 years ago, the gains have not been equal, he says.
"Everybody’s better off, but it’s particularly the well-off who are better off," he says.
Breaking down economic class by income
One objective way some researchers divide individuals into economic classes is by looking at their incomes. From that data, they split earners into different classes: poor, lower-middle class, middle class, upper-middle class and wealthy.
The income cutoffs that divide those income ranges can change from year to year and among methodologies, but here's a sense of where they stand, according to recent data:
The month-to-month change in all employees' average hourly earnings has been positive since June of 2020, suggesting wages are growing, though this job-related earnings data does not account for other sources of income like retirement savings.
What is middle-class income?
Pew Research defines middle-income Americans as those whose annual household incomes are two-thirds to double the national median (adjusted for local cost of living and household size).
For a family of three, that ranges from $52,200 to $156,600 when the 2018 incomes used in a Pew study are adjusted for inflation from 2018 to 2021, according to Rakesh Kochhar, senior researcher at the Pew Research Center.
If those numbers have your head spinning, here's a breakdown of income and class for a family of three:
Pew developed a calculator to determine income class – you can plug in relevant financial, geographic and household information for a take on where you rank.
"In my mind, there's a big divide today between the upper-middle class and the middle class," Stephen Rose, nonresident fellow at the Urban Institute and research professor at George Washington Institute of Public Policy, says.
Some of that divide is cultural, he says. The middle class feels they're missing out and that the upper class is looking down on them, he adds.
Am I middle class?
Whether your income lands in the middle-class level depends on more than just your income or the balance in your bank account. Where you fall in the American economic class system may not stay consistent throughout your life – or even from year to year – experts say.
For example, a law student may earn a modest graduate student stipend of $20,000 per year, which would put them in the low-income class. But education and future earnings will most likely catapult their income and class placement to a higher level down the road.
"People really need to understand that whatever's happening (with their class rank) today is part of a trajectory, part of their life," Rose says.
Other factors help define the middle class
How a person perceives their own social class extends beyond what a W-2 income form claims they earn, experts say.
"Class is more than just income," Kochhar says. "What doesn’t change is your education level, your occupation or the neighborhood you live in."
A factor some may use to determine class is education level, and those with postsecondary educations link their class placement to those degrees. In addition, your location also has a major impact on how you feel you stack up.
So where do you place in the American economic class system? You can look at income, education, marital status, location, family history, gut instinct and a host of other factors to find out where you fall. But the bottom line is this: Finding the answer is more complex than just looking at a number.