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Published October 13 2012

Definitions range widely for political sweet spot: The middle class

FARGO - They are perhaps the two most-used and least-defined words of an election year: middle class.

Most people say they belong to it. Those running for office bend over backward to woo it. But nobody seems entirely certain of what it actually means or whom it encompasses.

Locally, the people who consider themselves middle class are a diverse bunch, from retirees on a fixed income to white-collar professionals earning twice as much as the average household. And they say lifestyle and attitude are as important as income in making that determination.

“A lot of it’s how you feel about your circumstances,” said Lisa Cook, of Fargo. “It is hard to quantify.”

A recent survey from the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based research group, defined middle class nationally as households earning about $40,000 to $120,000 a year. That encompasses a little more than half of adult Americans.

Other groups – and many politicians – use a broader definition that includes household incomes up to $250,000, a common cutoff point in policy debates over tax reform.

Geography also plays a role. A very comfortable income in Fargo doesn’t go nearly as far in New York or San Francisco.

With an annual income of around $110,000, Cook’s household earns well above North Dakota’s median income of about $52,000.

She considers her household – herself, her husband, a college professor who is currently the primary breadwinner, and a teenage son – to be “very solidly middle-class.”

They own a home of average value in an older Fargo neighborhood. They don’t fret about the cost of dining out but don’t do it every day. They don’t have many “luxury” extras like fancy cars, but keep a nice wine cellar. Their biggest splurge recently was a farmstead near Casselton they hope to turn into a winery.

Cook, who grew up below the poverty line, knows she’s better off than many people.

“My family would look at me and probably think I would be rich,” she said.

But she also knows there are many people who earn more than her family who don’t consider themselves rich, either.

“It’s not only a number,” she said. “It’s a state of mind.”

Frank Aabye never earned as much as Cook’s family. But the Fargo man and retired Perham, Minn., postmaster considers himself middle-class, too.

Aabye, who now lives in Dawson, Minn., with his wife, asked that his income not be published. It’s toward the lower end of the Pew definition.

He and his wife own a home. They don’t do many expensive extras like vacations, but they have a motor home. Aabye still works part time for spending money.

Both Aabye and his father, a Fargo firefighter who worked other jobs, achieved that status by working hard for a steady paycheck, he said.

“The middle class, to me, is a well-paid working class,” Aabye said.

He said he views business owners differently than wage earners. The latter are definitely middle class, he said, but he’s not so sure about the former.

That dichotomy was once common in defining the middle class, says Hy Berman, a retired history professor at the University of Minnesota.

Before the middle of the 20th century or so, the middle class was defined as people earning a good income by working for a paycheck – not poor or working class but not as lofty as business owners.

Today, an income-based definition is most common – though there’s no firm agreement on where the lines ought to be drawn.

Berman said the characteristics most often associated with the middle class – a good job, a house, a chance for upward mobility – are the components of the prototypical American Dream.

He said the middle class didn’t become a hot political topic until it began eroding toward the end of the 20th century. By the Pew study’s definition, adjusted for median income, the proportion of Americans that qualify as middle class has fallen from 61 percent to 51 percent over the past 40 years.

Forty years ago, 62 percent of total U.S. household income went to middle-income earners, while 29 percent went to high earners. Today, the share for high earners has overtaken middle earners, 46 percent to 45 percent.

“The middle class has shriveled as a proportion of the population,” Berman said. “The upward mobility is a dream. The downward mobility is a reality.”

That doesn’t mean people are only moving in one direction.

Eric Watson grew up poor in Colorado. Now, he and his wife, Sara, own Mosaic Catering and the restaurant Mezzaluna in Fargo.

“For me, being middle class is in a way like being wealthy,” he said.

His household income, which the Watsons asked not be published, is near the high end of the Pew definition, though well below the $250,000 mark.

It’s a good living, although with four children, the Watsons also have more expenses than many households.

“I think occasionally there’s a misperception that we make more money than we actually do,” Eric Watson said of small-business owners. They may earn more than other middle-class families but are also more subject to ups and downs than people with a steady paycheck.

The Watsons enjoy eating out and can take the occasional family trip, though they seldom have time to do so. They own a nice-but-not-extravagant Moorhead home.

But for Eric Watson, who came from a childhood of welfare and food stamps, the biggest perk of being middle class is quite a bit simpler than that:

“We can take care of our kids,” he said. “They’ve got all the necessities. They’ve got what they need. That’s a huge peace of mind for me.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

Who calls themselves middle class?

According to a recent Pew Research Center study:

• 49 percent of adults call themselves middle class.

• That includes 51 percent of whites, 48 percent of blacks and 47 percent of Hispanics, despite income differences between the three groups.

• 63 percent of people 65 and older consider themselves middle class, while just

42 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say the same.

• The median household income of people who call themselves middle class is $70,000.