America’s definition of ‘middle class’ hasn’t changed, even amid a very different economic reality

May 19, 2022, 10:02 AM UTC
Less than 4 in 10 Americans consider themselves middle class
Skynesher/Getty Images

Amid record inflation and growing concerns about the U.S. economic outlook, Americans are increasingly worried about their finances and the rising costs of living

But there’s been little change in how most Americans view their place in the pecking order.

About 38% of Americans consider themselves middle class, while 14% refer to themselves as upper-middle class, according to new survey data released by Gallup on Thursday. The data comes from Gallup’s economy and personal finance survey, which was fielded April 1-19, 2022. 

The effects of inflation are hitting Americans pretty hard these days, particularly at the gas pump, but those rising costs don’t seem to be enough to shift people’s attitudes around social class, Jeff Jones, Gallup senior editor, tells Fortune. People were quite positive about the economy in 2019, the last time Gallup polled U.S. adults on their social identification. Now Americans are “decidedly negative” on their financial and economic outlook, yet there’s been no change in social class identification, he says.

The share of Americans who identify as purely middle class dropped slightly since 2019. But when looking at the combined share of those who consider themselves middle or upper-middle class, it’s unchanged.

Overall, the idea of who is middle class hasn’t really shifted significantly in Gallup’s findings since the Great Recession. Leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, nearly 60% of Americans considered themselves either middle class or upper-middle class. But since 2015, it's hovered just above 50%. 

It really comes down to how people think about themselves and what kind of term resonates with them, Jones says. 

More Republicans seem to be identifying as "working class," Jones adds. That’s a notable change. Before 2012, 71% of Republicans identified as middle class—it has since dropped to 60%. Meanwhile about 57% of Democrats considered themselves middle class in 2012, compared to 55% in 2021. 

“That could be tied into how education, income, and social class may be changing as a kind of political dividing line, compared to what it used to be,” Jones says. The most important predictors of middle class are income and education level.

When it comes to income, a single American needed to earn $30,003 to $90,010 in 2021 to be considered middle class, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center. That range does vary by the size of the household. A three-person household must earn between $51,962 to $155,902 to be considered middle class, while a family of four needs between $60,000 to $180,000. 

Americans' ideas of social class also are shaped by their upbringing and world events. For millennials and younger Americans who came of age during the Great Recession, for example, the financial fallout impacted their views of money, the economy, and social class, Jones says.

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