Arnold Kling  

Who is a Middle American?

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Both Joel Kotkin and David Brooks seem to be struggling with this issue. They agree that middle America is in trouble. But who are we talking about? Kotkin writes,

Since Obama's inauguration all the economic statistics vital to their lives--job creation, family income, housing prices--have been stagnant or negative. Not surprising then that suburbanites, small businesspeople and middle-income workers walked out on the Democrats last night. They did not do so because they loved the Republicans but because the majority either fears unemployment or already have lost their jobs. Many were employed in the industries such as manufacturing and construction hardest hit in the recession; it has not escaped their attention that Obama's public-sector allies, paid with their taxes, have remained not only largely unscathed, but much better compensated.

Brooks writes,

The Midwest has lost a manufacturing empire but hasn't yet found a role.

So is the middle American a small businessman? A manufacturing or construction worker?

Kotkin says that there are 50 million households (note--households, not individuals) with incomes between $50,000 and $150,000 a year. I think that is a good working model of the middle American.

Even five years ago, manufacturing production lines and construction were not big enough to account for a major share of these households. If I were to come up with a stereotypical middle American, the occupations that where I would expect to find them would be:

--allied health professionals (nursing assistants, dental assistants, etc.) At the low end, these folks would have to be part of two-income families to make the middle income threshold.

--in offices, doing work that supports company infrastructure--human resources, information technology, marketing communications, supervision of front-line employees.

Fifty years ago, you might have described the median American worker as working on an assembly line. I do not think that you can do that today. My guess is that the median American worker does something that a technocrat in Washington could not do without months or years of training. The technocrats are trying to apply "stimulus" to an economy that has grown far too complex for them to understand.

What do you think of when you think of the occupation of a worker in the median American household

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CATEGORIES: Labor Market

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Eric writes:

According to wikipedia, the income ranges you give for middle America are about the 55th-90th percentiles. Not what I would normally consider the middle. The middle half in household income is about 22,500-77,500 (in 2005).

Mercer writes:

When Kotkin calls households earning up to 150K middle class I don't think he is accurate.

"What do you think of when you think of the occupation of a worker in the median American household"

Women: nurses and teachers.
Men: small business owner, plumber, mechanic.

Brooks by focusing on the rust belt is looking at the region where most of the swing voters are. I agree with him that neither party has a good answer for the region's economic problems. I think a fall in the dollar is needed to make the industries there more competitive.

MernaMoose writes:

What do you think of when you think of the occupation of a worker in the median American household

Gee, I dunno. But we really need to elect a lot more liberals so we can make sure that whatever the Median American is, all Americans are just like that.

Except maybe Obama. And Pelosi. And a few of those special types.

JP98 writes:

This is little more than a guess, but I'd say the middle includes most salesmen, administrative assistants, paralegals, government clerks of various types, all sorts of "technicians" (in doctor's offices, laboratories, IT departments, etc.), truckers, postal workers & delivery men, non-entrepreneurial workers in the building trades, store managers. Policemen, firemen, and teachers might be in the middle in places far from large urban areas.

Troy Camplin writes:

Yeah, that middle income person also has the following:

$1500/mo mortgage
$1000/mo in student loans between both people
$500/mo car payment (or two)
$200/mo cell phone bill (if it's just two)
$150/mo cable/internet bill
$75/mo electricity bill
$75/mo utilities
credit card debt
$150/mo in gas per car (optimistically)
$150/mo misc.
$200/mo credit card bill (optimistically)

If you make $50,000/yr, that is about $36,000/mo after taxes. You will note the gap (and we haven't even brought up food -- another $500/mo?

Welcome to the middle class in suburban America

GU writes:


Part of this is explained by people meaning "two earner households" when they say "middle class households." The data you cite doesn't differentiate between singles and true "households," aka married couples and families*. It also doesn't adjust for cost of living differences—people in NYC make more money than people in Lincoln, NE for doing the same job, because it costs so much more than to live in NYC.

What I'm trying to say is that I believe Arnold's income range for "middle class" is reasonable.

*"Middle class," to me at least, implies a certain adherence to bourgeois values like marriage and having children.

John Fox writes:

What occupation do I think of? I think "accountant"

rjs writes:

Brooks’ Midwest is:

that region of America that starts in central New York and Pennsylvania and then stretches out through Ohio and Indiana before spreading out to include Wisconsin and Arkansas.

Ned Baker writes:

If the median household income in America is $50k, how can $50k-$150/year be "a good working model of the middle American"?

Those expenses are outrageous for a so-called "middle American."

Hyena writes:

When someone from New York says "the Midwest" they mean "Ohio".

I would ask where, exactly, "the West" is? I suspect that, on their geography, "the West" is "Nebraska" and California is rightly "Japan".

Floccina writes:
What do you think of when you think of the occupation of a worker in the median American household

I think of Auto mechanics, secretaries, clerks, carpenters, plumbers, truck drivers, electricians, car salesmen, real-estate agents.

Peter writes:

Not sure I think median work works well, a better thing would be median family.

The majority of families I know tend to have one primary wage earner (75 to 80 of the household wage) and one works because their kids went to school finally.

Primary Earner: Any government, any job that doesn't require more than 4 years of school/training nor less than a year of training (i.e. plumbers would count via the technical or trade system).

Secondary Earner: Something no/low skilled useless like reception, retail, fast food, house cleaning, landscaping, etc.

I also wouldn't lump these as middle class but as working class.

2 Primary Earning Workers: Middle Class
2 Secondary Earning Workers: Working Poor
1 of each: Working Class

Poverty and Upper Class don't work well on a numbers game, it's one of those things we all know what it is and when we see it. I think the argument is over the exact dividing line between three classes above.

Troy Camplin writes:


Ha! I wish. That may be true in rural Kentucky, for example (where I have relatives), but those are the numbers for college-educated (esp. grad-educated) suburbanites in Dallas, TX

Seth Keller writes:

I feel that the middle American household today is the households where not only is the income in between $50, 000 and $150,000 but they are in a above average work position or some type of additional education beyond high school. Workers that are possibly a part of a manufacturing or some type of industrial work can be a part of this middle American household if they are in a supervisor position. They are making the type of income that if it is combined with the other members of their household they fall into that range of income. Also they hold that above average work position because they are not technically on the front line part of the manufacturing or assembly line work. They are instead overseeing the work done in these industries.
I also feel that workers that are not involved in manufacturing industries are also considered to be in that middle American household. People such as accountants, computer technicians, and even some doctors can be put within this range. Many doctors make an income lower than $150,000 per year which technically would put them within this category. Most people would not think that doctors are in the middle class of America but by definition they are. They are just at the higher end of this range rather than the lower end that the other workers are. So basically, I still believe that manufacturing workers can be considered middle class if they fall into the definition of middle class while doctors and professions unrelated to manufacturing can also be categorized as middle class.

Justin writes:

I believe the middle class should start at lower income values than 50,000. I believe 50,000 is too large for some single households and family's in our current economy. Having 150,000 as the cap to the middle class is somewhat high but I think is justified due to how much more money the upper class generally brings in. In fact, I believe the gap of the upper and middle class could soon cause income cap of the middle class to increase.

Another thing about the middle class is the gap between incomes. Is having a wide gap in middle class income bad? Or could we start to see a division of class within the middle class? I believe the lifestyle and standard on living of one in the upper middle class is much different than one in the lower middle class.

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