DEFINITION of 'Middle Class'

Middle class is a description given to individuals and households who fall between the working class and the upper class within a societal hierarchy. In Western cultures, persons in the middle class tend to have a higher proportion of college degrees than those in the working class, have more income available for consumption and may own property. Those in the middle class often are employed as professionals, managers and civil servants.

BREAKING DOWN 'Middle Class'

The word "middle" may be misleading in that it suggests that those in the middle class have earnings within the middle of the population's income distribution, which may not be the case.

Karl Marx referred to the middle class as part of the bourgeoisie when he described capitalism. The term itself has shifted in meaning over time, having once referred to persons who had the means to rival nobles.

What Constitutes the Middle Class

The birth of the middle class in some respects has been linked to federal funding and support through programs such as the GI Bill, which offered funds for education and the start of businesses created by veterans who were discharged. The combination of incentives and salary increases helped elevate working class citizens into the newly forming middle class.

The income parameters that define the middle class continue to change and not solely based on the rate of inflation. Regional disparities in income and the cost of living mean that salary-based measures of the middle class can vary greatly. Different income barometers describe the middle class as having income from $50,000 to $150,000 or in some instances $42,000 to $125,000. Other measures of middle class set the upper income mark at $250,000.

The concept of middle class society may include a presumption of earning a salary that supports owning a resident in a suburban or comparable neighborhood in rural or urban settings, along with discretionary income that allows for access to entertainment and other flexible expenses such as travel or dining out. While it is assumed middle class households generate sufficient income for retirement savings along with standard expenses, an increasing segment of this portion of the American population is also living paycheck-to-paycheck.

An ideal commonly held among the middle class is that it is possible to increase their income to higher economic strata through career advancement and salary upgrades. The pace of such upward mobility aspirations, however, have changed over the decades with the costs of goods and services in some cases outpacing the growth of salaries.

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