The strength of the American middle class is a common point of focus among politicians and analysts, as it was during this most recent presidential election. For many, this group is important for cultural reasons, signifying “everyday America.” For others, it represents the consumer class that drives the American economy.
But who actually makes up the middle class in the United States? For such a commonly-discussed group, there is surprisingly little consensus on how to define the group. One Pew Research Center study defines it as households earning between two-thirds and twice the median household income. Other varying definitions include a range of annual household incomes as low as $13,000 and as high as $230,000.
To determine the income it takes for a family to be considered middle class in every state, using one of the wider definitions, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data on U.S. family income quintiles from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey. We reviewed the lower boundary of the second quintile and the upper boundary of the fourth quintile, representing in total 60% of American families. We adjusted these boundaries for state-level cost of living using regional price parity data for 2018 from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The RPP-adjusted boundaries were defined as the range of income that could be considered middle class in a given state.
From state to state, the cost of living varies significantly. Adjusting for the cost of living, the bottom threshold of the middle class in one state is as low as $15,165 and as high as $41,532 in another. At the other end of the spectrum, the upper range of the middle 60% of earners is as low as $148,210 and as high as $295,250.
Because this income distribution is so wide, it is likely that many households, even after adjusting for cost of living, can technically fall into the middle class in their state yet still be unable to meet the basic comfortable standard of living many associate with a middle class lifestyle. This is the income a family actually needs to avoid poverty in every state.
Generally, states where the middle class by this definition has a lower income range have lower incomes across the board and higher poverty rates. In many of these states, income distribution tends to most disproportionately favor the richest people in the state. For example, in Mississippi, the middle 60% of earners in the state account for 45.0% of the state’s aggregate income, while the richest 5% of families alone account for 23.4%. Click here to see how many children live in poverty in your state.
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