The term “middle class” has always been one of the watchwords in American politics. Look no further than “Middle-class Joe.” But a lot of times when it’s cited, the implied definition seems to be more experiential than statistical: A sense that what you have is good, but that you also struggle; what you have isn’t secure, and if you start falling there just won’t be any bottom. If we define “middle class” in this way, it suggests the Times interviewees — if still not representing the median “middle-class” person — arguably should be included under the umbrella.
Consider Jessica Wang, whose family makes $150,000 a year in San Francisco: “We cannot buy a home here, our cars are both over 10 years old, and we don’t eat out more than a couple of times per month. We have a college fund for our son, but no real savings.” Or the Dunhams of Minnesota, who make between $200,000 and $400,000, but also live under mountains of debt and work brutal hours: “Each of us lives in constant terror of falling asleep in a chair or behind the wheel or at the operating table and causing harm to someone or having something awful happen to our children because we couldn’t stay awake.”
Making $150,000 to $200,000 a year will put you squarely in the top 5 percent of American wage-earners. But even the fairly good wage growth for that cohort is dwarfed by the gains of the top 1 percent in recent years.