President Obama and Mitt Romney agree that this election is all about the middle class. But nobody—including the candidates—can agree on how the "middle class” should be defined.
Obama and his Republican rival have come closest to defining middle class when they talk about tax policy. Both candidates have vowed not to raise middle-class taxes, and both have indicated that $250,000 per year is the upper limit of what they consider a middle-class income.
Romney told ABC News last month that “middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 or less.” Obama has spent months advocating for the extension of tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 per year, arguing that raising taxes on the middle class doesn’t make sense in this economy.
Experts say the $250,000 cutoff is unreasonably high—even when you take into account geographical variation in the cost of living. Only about 2 percent of Americans make over $250,000 per year, said Jared Bernstein, former executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class.
“If you figure that something like 15 percent of the country is poor, 85 percent of the country is middle class,” by Romney and Obama’s tax math, Bernstein said. “That’s a very broad definition.”
For researchers, an income-based definition of "middle class" hovers around $62,273, the Census Bureau’s 2011 figure for median family income. A 2012 report from the Brookings Institution defined entering the middle class as living in a family with “income greater than 300 percent of the poverty line,” or about $68,000 for a couple with two children.
Even those who self-identify as middle class don’t agree on how much a middle-class lifestyle costs. Half of self-proclaimed middle-class Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2012 said that a family of four would need to make more than $70,000 per year to live a middle-class lifestyle, while half said it would take less.
There’s more to defining middle class than income, said Diana Elliott, research manager of the Economic Mobility Project at the Pew Center on the States. “There’s different ways that you could think about it conceptually in terms of education, home ownership,” she said.
Researchers cite a steady job and the ability to save for retirement, afford a home, and educate one’s children as components of what it means to be middle class. In focus groups, when Americans are asked to draw a picture of what the middle class looks like, they mention “a house with a picket fence, a family” and “maybe a dog,” Elliott said.
But for most Americans, middle class isn’t just about income: it’s also a state of mind.
“In America, everyone wants to think they’re middle class, or at least historically that’s been the case,” said Charles Murray, W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. So when candidates say they want to help the middle class, “you can be sure that a whole lot of people in the audience will think that the candidates are talking about them.”
The term “middle class” also fits differently into the Democratic and Republican vision for America, said George Lakoff, professor of Cognitive Linguistics at the University of California (Berkeley).
The two parties have “different stereotypes on what counts as achieving the American dream,” Lakoff said. For Republicans, achieving the American dream means becoming rich. For Democrats, achieving the American Dream means becoming “comfortably middle class,” he added.