The middle class began as the group in-between the land-owners and the peasants but the term as we use it now was defined by Marxists. To them, the middle class is the group between the workers and the property owners. That usage is irrelevant today because of the overlap in pay between office workers and factory workers.
A recent article in the Columbus Dispatch suggested defining the middle class by demographics. Rank everyone by pay and drop the top and bottom 20%. The 60% in the middle is the middle class. Using this method, the middle class is anyone who makes between $31,900 and $62,030. Apparently everyone in the top 20% is considered rich.
There are major problems with this approach. The life of someone making $65,000 a year is not much different than someone making $62,030 a year. Even someone making $125,000 - twice the upper limit by this measure - has a similar lifestyle.
Another problem with this approach is that it puts some people normally considered to be middle class in the upper class. The top pay for police officers and elementary school teachers in Columbus is well above the $62,000 limit. Auto workers also skirt the top edge. And that is not counting benefits.
Several union meetings over Labor Day including one attended by President Obama made it clear that they consider union membership to be the determining factor in belonging to the middle class. If you are not in a union then you are not middle class. Obviously this is a self-serving definition. It is also the basis of their campaign to keep collective bargaining rights.
One problem with defining the middle class is that the percentage of people who are rich by any measure is very small. President Obama talks about millionaires and billionaires but actually counts the rich as starting at an annual income of $200,000/year ($250,000 family). This is a nice sum compared to $62,000 but, again, it is not a life-changing one. Someone in that range is going to have a bigger house (with a bigger mortgage) and newer cars and worries less about bills but does not live the "lifestyle of the rich and famous".
The real wealth is concentrated in the top 1%. That's where the millionaires and billionaires are. The trouble, at least for politicians, is that it just doesn't sound right to say that people in the 98th% income group are in the middle class.
More in the Washington Post fact check column here.
Other polls suggest that 90 percent or more of Americans consider themselves to be "middle class" or "upper-middle class" or "working class." An April 2007 poll by CBS News found that of 994 adults surveyed only 2 percent said they were "upper class," and 7 percent said they were "lower class." In another poll, taken by Gallup/USA Today in May 2006, 1 percent said they were "upper class," and 6 percent said they were "lower class." Interestingly, since 12.3 percent of Americans were living below the official federal poverty level in 2006, these poll findings suggest many who are officially poor still consider themselves to be "middle class" or "working class."