The United States’ class structure is more fluid than those of older nations. Anyone really can grow up to be president, and the American dream holds that all people can achieve success if they work hard enough. However, a class structure does exist, and it is based on income rather than heredity. Monetary distinctions among classes also have a regional aspect. In areas of the country with a high cost of living, an income considered middle class elsewhere may put someone in the lower class, commonly known as “working class.” The middle class in the United States continues to lose ground, while the number of Americans in the lower and upper classes has grown.
Approximately 29 percent of Americans fall into the lower class based on income. Many of these people are best described not only as working class but as lower-middle class. While these people might struggle, they are not considered poor. Federal poverty guidelines for 2019 in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C., consider a person earning less than $12,490 annually as impoverished. For two people or a couple, the amount is $16,910, and for a family of four, it is $25,750. For Alaska residents, a person earning less than $15,600 is considered impoverished, as is a couple earning less than $21,130. For a family of four, the amount is $32,190. In Hawaii, the numbers are $14,380 for one person, $19,460 for a couple and $29,620 for a family of four.
The 2017 American Community Survey, issued by the U.S. Census Bureau, put the median national household income level at $60,336, the highest level recorded. However, the middle class is contracting, not expanding. Pew Research Center defines middle class as those earning between 67 percent and 200 percent of the median income, which works out to income between $39,560 and $118,080. While the middle class is by far the largest, it makes up approximately half of all Americans, at 51 percent. Much depends on the state you live in to determine the state of your class ranking. In Mississippi, an individual earning $41,754 is definitely middle class, but earn that same amount in New York and you’re a working-class person. State taxes can make a difference in exactly where people find themselves on the income class ladder.
The term “upper class” brings to mind the very rich or the aristocratic, but in the U.S., it’s safe to say that most people earning an upper-class income consider themselves upper-middle class at best. For a single person, upper class means an annual income of $72,126 or more, but that amount will not enable that individual to buy a typical New York City or San Francisco home. For a couple, upper class starts at $102,001, while for a family of four, the amount is $144,251. These amounts enable a comfortable rather than a lavish lifestyle. They aren't rich.
Where does “rich” begin? Let’s consider federal income tax brackets. In 2019, the highest tax bracket, at 37 percent, starts at $510,300 for single people and $612,350 for married couples filing jointly. While these folks aren’t in the billionaire class, they could hold assets of at least several million dollars and are rich by almost anyone’s standard. Overall, about 20 percent of the population earns what is considered an upper-class income in the U.S.
Class Is More Than Income
While annual income is the most straightforward way to identify class, it’s far from the only indicator. For example, a younger person with a good education might earn what is considered a lower-class income, but they likely consider themselves middle class based on their upbringing and future earnings potential. Occupation, net worth and education are other common class identifiers.
- CNBC: Here's How Much You Need to Earn to be Considered Upper Class
- Business Insider: How Much Income You Have to Earn to be Considered Middle Class in Every US State
- Pew Research Center: Are You in the American Middle Class? Find Out With Our Income Calculator
- Department of Health & Human Services: Poverty Guidelines
- Tax Foundation: 2018 Tax Brackets
- U.S Census Bureau: Household Income: 2017
- Tax Foundation: 2019 Tax Brackets
- Noel Hendrickson/Photodisc/Getty Images