The term “middle class” means the same thing across the U.S. — that you have assets and incomes that are in the middle range for where you live. Since wages and the cost of living vary significantly across the U.S., the income required to be middle class also varies across the country.
National Public Radio’s Planet Money decided to answer this question by looking at income data from the 2013 American Community Survey conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau. Median incomes were used in the analysis — in other words, at the listed value exactly half of the residents have incomes above that value and half have incomes below it. The 25% and 75% marks were also noted to show the range of what could reasonably be called middle class.
Using these values for thirty cities, the median income for the country was $64,000, with a spread of $34,000 to $107,000 covering the middle 50% of wage earners. Congratulations, Minneapolis — you scored closest to the national average with a median income of $64,000 and range of $33,000 to $116,000, making you the middle class of the middle class.
The bottom three cities are in the more depressed areas of the Upper Midwest. Detroit had the lowest median income at $30,000, with a range of $12,000 to $59,000. Cleveland follows with a $32,000 median and a range of $15,000 to $58,000, and Milwaukee came in at $36,000 median and $18,000 to $67,000 in range. (Surprisingly, Miami tied Milwaukee for the median value but had a slightly higher range.)
The three cities with the highest median income far surpassed the others, with a $24,000 gap between the third and fourth highest. All three are on the West Coast (as is the fourth in Portland, Oregon) and two are in the Bay Area.
San Jose tops the list with a median income of $103,000 and a range of $51,000 to $182,000 — thus if you live in San Jose and make $180,000 you could make a credible argument for being in the middle class. San Francisco was third at $96,000 median income and a range of $44,000 to $171,000, combining with San Jose to make the Bay Area arguably the region with the highest middle-class income.
Seattle comes in second with $102,000 median income and a range of $56,000 to $165,000. The $56,000 that puts you at the 25th percentile in Seattle and almost out of the middle class in income puts you within a few thousand dollars of being the upper class in income in Detroit or Cleveland.
The readings are skewed a bit for several reasons. The data used was family income, meaning that single-person households were excluded. (Family data requires two or more related people living in a household.) Also, the data for only six of the cities were estimates from metropolitan areas, thus many suburban and all rural areas are excluded. Finally, the cities in the study are the thirty most densely populated, excluding smaller cities.
These changes almost certainly skew the national data towards a higher number (Sorry, Minneapolis, it could be more likely that Pittsburgh at $55,000 median income or Baltimore at $50,000 has the most representative middle class.)
While these comparisons may be used to draw some conclusions about costs of living and economic development, on a personal level they do not mean much of anything. Don’t worry about whether you are middle, lower or upper class where you live — just do the best you can to support yourself and your family. Nothing else really matters.
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