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To feel middle class, you have to be wealthy

Juliana Kaplan   

To feel middle class, you have to be wealthy
  • Middle-income Americans aren't living middle-class lifestyles.
  • Research indicates that middle-income earners spend more like lower-income workers.

The American dream goes something like this: You pull yourself up by your bootstraps, get a solid job with benefits, buy a house, start a family, and coast comfortably toward retirement in the country's robust middle class.

While many might think middle-income Americans would be living this dream, they're not. Instead, they're living more like their lower-income peers, struggling to make ends meet and worried about losing it all.

New research from Claire Tassin, a retail and e-commerce analyst at business intelligence company Morning Consult, found that middle-income consumers' behavior is more similar to their lower-income counterparts than more affluent Americans.

"As shoppers are still battling heightened prices and inflationary pressure, middle-income consumer sentiment tracks much closer to lower income," Tassin said. "Rather than mirroring the top bracket, they're mirroring the lower bracket."

Tassin analyzed consumer behavior among Americans making under $50,000, those making between $50,000 and $100,000 — what Morning Consult deems middle-income — and those making over $100,000. While middle-income consumers might prioritize the same financial goals or beliefs as their higher-earning counterparts — like believing that planning for the future is important — they're spending and living a lot more like they're lower-income, and the gap with the affluent is getting wider.

For instance, according to Tassin, middle-income earners report that they'd be willing to pay more for a higher-quality product — but that's not what's happening.

In reality, middle- and lower-income shoppers are "nearly identical" in reporting that they tend toward the less-expensive option when buying something.

Indeed, while many Americans might be plugging away at work, that doesn't mean they're staying afloat. An increasing share of American adults — around 29% — are considered ALICE: asset-limited, income-constrained, but employed. While they're earning consistent paychecks, they're struggling to make ends meet — but still make too much to receive assistance.

It all speaks to the ever-moving goalposts of what it takes to achieve a middle-class lifestyle in America. As the hallmarks of that dream become more out of reach, middle-income earners don't feel like they've made it.

Take Amanda, a millennial in Texas. She's been able to buy a house, have her student loans forgiven, and make over $100,000 annually. This position should, by many measures, make her feel secure.

"I know that I'm doing a lot better than other people my age, but there's still a lot of anxiety that if there's another pandemic, if anything crazy happens, if we lose our jobs, how do we pay the bills?" Amanda previously told BI.

The middle class is more of a club than an income bracket

The ranks of middle-income earners have been shrinking, according to the Pew Research Center.

Rakesh Kochhar, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, told BI that the share of people living in a middle-income household — earning somewhere between two-thirds and double the median income for a family of their size, per Pew's definition— has dropped over the last five decades, hitting 50% in 2010 and down from around 60% in 1970. That's held true since then, according to Kochhar, with a slightly higher share of that missing 10% moving into the upper-income tier.

"We now have more inequality or more polarization with more people living either at the upper income tier or the lower income tier and fewer in the middle. So moving to the extremes," Kochhar said.

Many who have moved into the high-income category, however, suffer from money dysmorphia. A solid chunk of millionaires consider themselves middle class, despite accounting for just over 12% of American families. While they can certainly afford middle-class markers like homeownership, education, and family more than their lower-income peers, they might also be reluctant to leave the identity of being middle-class behind.

"It's more a club that most Americans want to be part of regardless of their actual circumstances. And there's good reasons," Lawrence R. Samuel, the author of the book "The American Middle Class: A Cultural History," told Business Insider. The myth of the middle-class and the belief that you can work your way up in a fundamentally democratic way is very American, he said.

Samuel said that for some, it is almost unpatriotic to admit that you're wealthy. In a time when blue-collar work holds a particular cache and union approval — if not participation — is at a record high, holding on to the facsimile of the middle class might even be a point of pride.

"Being middle class is almost like classless. There's strong connotations associated with being underclass or poor, and with being rich — it almost violates our equalitarian creed," Samuel said. As he puts it, we like the "big fat middle" in the US, where we're all close to being the same. Clinging to at least the mirage of the middle class might be important to upholding more core American ideals.

"If we admit that we're very class-based — which we really are — that reveals the uncomfortable truth that we're not as democratic as we like to pretend to be, which is the heart and soul of this country," he said. "If we're not truly democracy, then what are we? That's the whole justification for creating this country."

Are you middle-income but don't feel middle-class? Contact this reporter at

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