Where is the 'middle' in middle class?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 | 12:52 p.m. CDT; updated 9:09 a.m. CDT, Monday, May 7, 2012

COLUMBIA — The White House has a task force devoted to restoring the middle class. Yet the U.S. government has no firm definition for what exactly middle class is.

In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Barack Obama said it was the defining issue of our time to restore the basic American promise that "if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college and put a little away for retirement."

Is that what it means to be middle class?

The U.S. Census breaks income groups down into fifths. In 2008, the Congressional Research Service came close to defining the middle class by suggesting it describes either those in the middle quintile — or the three middle quintiles. At the time, that would have meant families of four earning $39,000 to $60,000 a year in the narrow view — and an income range of $20,000 to $100,000 in a broader view. The service also reported that surveys showed around $40,000 annual income to be an accurate low end of what is considered middle class.

The median home price in in the U.S. these days is about $170,000. (Of course, that varies greatly whether you live in Seattle or Sioux Falls.) The average yearly cost of college is $17,000 for public, in-state schools and $28,000 for private schools. (Again, the averages are just that, and don't tell the specific story of the kid who loves it at North Dakota State University versus the one who has his sights set on Yale.)

But the core question remains: What (and where) are the chances a person earning $39,000 a year can start a family, own a home, send children to college and put a little away for retirement? Middle class seems like it has long been the benchmark of that basic American promise. But is it now possible to reach middle class status and have the promise remain out of reach?

Consider the broader view of middle class, in which just over $20,000 annual income is considered the cutoff. The Census Bureau puts a family of four — two adults and two children — in poverty with an income of about $22,000 or less. So under that broad view, a family could be both middle class and in poverty.

What's more, neither the loose parameters for the middle class nor the hard-and-fast poverty threshold are adjusted for geography. Does a family at $39,000 a year feel middle class in Manhattan? How about in a small town in Missouri?

With no clear definition of what the middle class is, how do we begin to restore it? Or does it mean something different for America's future than it has for its past?

This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.

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