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Defining the Middle Class

Who is the middle class? There doesn't seem to be any one answer, but everyone agrees we don’t want to hurt them. One thing for sure is that middle class doesn't mean today what it meant 50 years ago. The best way to evaluate who is or isn't in the middle class is by median income.

What is the median? Dante Chinni of the Wall Street Journal offers a good explanation. If you rank all 50 states by income 1 through 50, then take the average of the 25th and 26th states, you get the median income. Median income in the U.S. is roughly $51,000. At the state level, Mississippi has the lowest median income at $39,000, while #1 Maryland’s median income is $67,000. That’s a difference of $28,000.

If you go down to the county level in Mississippi, Holmes County has a median income of $22,000, while next door Madison County has a median income of $59,000 (a difference of $37,000). Montgomery County, Maryland has a median income of $95,000, while Allegany County’s is $35,000 (a difference of $60,000). So what constitutes middle class in Mississippi and Maryland? Who knows?

If you take away the top 20% and the bottom 20%, you’re left with the middle 60%. This is where it really gets interesting. For example, in New York City, the top end of this range is $171,000, while the lower number is $20,000. In Fairfax County, Virginia, top end of the range is $194,000 and the lower is $52,000. So which of these groups would a $9.00 per hour minimum wage help? Probably not the one’s making $194,000 per year and maybe not those making $20,000.

The bottom line is, trying to carve out the middle class as a way of setting national policy is strictly a political exercise.