It is not secret sociological knowledge that a lot more people consider themselves to be “middle class” than a strict definition of the term implies. At CNN.com, for example, you can report whether you feel middle class and then enter data on where you live to find out what the middle household income quintile is for your county. Despite the fact that I feel middle class, my income is slightly above this range for my own residence. The housing market in my area is a good example of the relativity of social class. I don’t feel particularly wealthy because housing here is expensive. Technically, this is false, but the sorts of homes that I would want to live in are expensive, so I perceive that housing is expensive overall and, thus, that my income is not high relative to the cost of housing.
This sort of reasoning led Jesse Klein, a student at the University of Michigan, to state that although her family makes over $250,000 per year, they are middle class. Growing up in Silicon Valley makes it easy to understand Klein’s perception, as this Yahoo Finance article points out. It does not, however, change the fact that Klein’s family is among the wealthiest in the country. The fact that a few households make more doesn’t change this, even if a lot of those households are around Klein’s. Her argument that she is middle class despite her family’s ability to afford out-of-state tuition at the University of Michigan also calls her perceptions into question. Like Klein, a Vancouver couple recently got some negative attention for complaining about the fact that their $360,000 salary would not cover their expenses.
It is interesting that Klein’s family income is also the number that President Obama used in his campaigns to distinguish the wealthy because less than 2% of American households have incomes above that amount. The response during his campaigns seemed to be, though, that $250,000 didn’t sound like that much. To somebody making $50,000 per year, $250,000 might sound (however unrealistically) within the realm of possibility. When discussing income (not to mention wealth), then, it is particularly important to provide a broader context about the nation as a whole. $250,000 isn’t just a number, it is a number that we can compare to the national median and earnings along the entire income range. Klein’s might not feel like her family is wealthy in Silicon Valley, but when she considers the fact that they make more than nearly every family in the country and can afford to do things that most Americans cannot, her feelings may change.
“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links about my income via your news feed.