The middle class is a vague term. Most Americans like to think of themselves as middle class whether it’s accurate or not. A 2005 New York Times survey found only 1 percent of respondents considered themselves “upper class,” and only 7 percent considered themselves part of the “lower class.” Most economists and other experts say income alone can’t define the middle class. “There is no single definition,” said the director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at UW-Madison and an expert on income distribution. There is no universal norm, no international definition that can be applied equally across the globe for the term “middle class”. Not so long ago, most families in the middle could get there and stay there on the earnings of a single breadwinner. Today, many two-income families are a paycheck away from losing their middle-class status and, in some cases, their homes because they are living beyond their means. Nor is the trends of relying on two incomes and spending more than the household earned limited to the United States. Globally, an increasing number of families relied on the use of two incomes and some serious leverage to achieve their middle class dreams.
If you lined everyone up based on Census Bureau income data and threw out the top 20 percent of household incomes and the bottom 20 percent, you’d be left with household incomes of about $25,000 to $100,000, Smeeding said. But that approach doesn’t take into account household size or a community’s cost of living. In its major report last year on the status of the middle class, the U.S. Department of Commerce identified middle-class people by aspirations instead of income. It said the middle class shares six goals: homeownership, a car, college education for their children, stable health care, a pension of some sort, and occasional family vacations. A wide array of incomes can achieve those goals, the report said, although some families definitely would be left out of the middle class by that definition.In many capitalist economies, the middle class label is a financial definition largely based on the lifestyle that you can afford. A nice house in the suburbs, two cars, good schools for the kids and a few weeks of vacation somewhere warm and sunny are the traditional rewards for achieving middle class status. In India and Indonesia some researchers conclude that a home that has a TV set, a refrigerator, a motorcycle or a car qualifies as ‘middle class’ in the Indian context.
Jeff and Denise Ehren aren't clear on the exact definition of middle class. They both work full time at UW-Whitewater — he's a custodian, she helps run the sports and recreation center — but those jobs together grossed just under $50,000 last year. They've got a mortgage, student loans, credit card debt and a variety of work on the side , from bartending to secretarial work.
"I certainly don't feel middle class," said Denise Ehren. "Sometimes I think we should just call ourselves poor and be done with it."