What it means to be middle-class today

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The Future. The popular image of middle-class security — a stable job with predictable wages, health insurance, and retirement — is a club that most Americans aspire to belong to. But a recent poll from The Washington Post shows US adults underestimate the income required for that lifestyle, hinting that the middle-class life trajectory might be more of a dream than a reality these days.

“Save like hell and hope you don’t live too long”
Just over a third of Americans have the financial security to meet the definition of what it means to be middle-class, according to a WaPo analysis of data from the Federal Reserve.

  • 9 in 10 US adults believe six markers of financial stability are necessary parts of being middle-class, including a secure job, the ability to save money for the future, the ability to afford an emergency $1,000 expense without debt, the ability to pay all bills on time without worry, having health insurance, and the ability to retire comfortably.
  • With additional measures of financial security — like paid sick leave, time and money for vacations, home ownership, and a college education — more Americans drift from the middle-class ideal. Even for those who can save, retirement is a top financial worry.
  • While The Pew Research Center positions a middle-class income between two-thirds and twice the national median income ($67,819 to $203,458 for a family of four in 2022), most Americans consider the lower end of that range (between $75,000 and $100,000) to be middle-class — which doesn’t align with the costs required to maintain that lifestyle.

Having just enough to pay bills and taxes… 
The good news is that the number of Americans with middle-class financial security hasn’t declined over time, even though the path to that tax bracket has become increasingly complex.

Kait Cunniff

Kait is a Chicago-raised, LA-based writer and NYU film grad. She created an anthology TV series for Refinery29 and worked as a development executive for John Wells Productions, Jon M. Chu, and Paramount Pictures. Her favorite color is orange.


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