To Newt Gingrich, the middle class is any family with kids that makes up to $200,000 a year. For Bill Clinton, the middle class ends somewhere around $100,000.
But Phyllis Neal, a single mother from Baltimore making $6.50 an hour processing utility bills, has a more personal definition: You’re middle class when you can miss a paycheck without causing a fullblown, empty-refrigerator family crisis.
“If I miss a paycheck, I’m in trouble,” said Neal, who is striving to raise three teenage daughters. “If middle-class people miss a paycheck, they’re not.”
These days, it seems that everybody in Washington wants to help the overloaded middle class, coping with a tricky economy and shifting family patterns. House Republicans are offering a $500 per child tax credit. Clinton has countered with a $10,000 tax deduction for college tuition.
But for all the attention to the middle class, there’s no generally accepted definition of what it is. In fact, “middle class” may be more of a state of mind - a set of values and aspirations - than an economic statistic.
In the ‘60s, “middle class” was a single-family house in the suburbs and a color television. Dad worked and Mom took care of the kids. In the ‘90s, Mom’s working, Dad might not be around, and the family’s eating pizza three nights a week. “Middle class” is a townhouse in a nice development and being able to afford a truly relaxing vacation.
Times change, but through the years most Americans continue to call themselves middle class.
Government figures bear this out. The distribution of incomes looks like the classic “pig-in-a-python” graph, with a big lump in the middle.
According to the latest census numbers, 64 percent of American households - that includes marriedcouple families, singles and unmarried heads of household - had incomes that fell between $15,000 and $75,000 a year in 1993.
On either side of those markers, the numbers drop off fairly dramatically. Only 13 percent made more than $75,000. And 23 percent made less than $15,000. The median household income - the midpoint on the income scale - was $31,241.
But those numbers may not seem right to many people. A family of four making $15,000 a year is barely above the poverty line. Some doctors with $200,000 incomes consider themselves middle class.