In U.S. politics there’s only one class — the middle class.

“A strong middle class is the bedrock of our prosperity and is the backbone of our democracy,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said during a speech in Washington last week, wheeling out one of the most tried and tested populist pitches in the political lexicon.

Increasingly, concern for the middle class dominates the rhetoric of federal politics. President Obama referred to this talismanic group seven times in his State of the Union address and devoted much of his speech to proposals he claimed would help those families economically.

But what exactly is “middle-class” America? Politicians view it as crucial to their success because it is so huge, but there is no settled definition among politicians, pollsters, economists and sociologists. Nor is there a consensus about whether the middle class is characterized by an income level, a way of life or a mindset.

“It really is one of those terms that I don’t think anyone has a great answer for,” said Jennifer Silva, a sociologist at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. “It’s just very complicated in a society that doesn’t want to say it has classes,” Silva said.

More than four out of every five Americans identify themselves as middle class in surveys. As the Great Recession subsides and the Obama era comes to a close, this vast majority and the swing voters it encompasses keep signaling in polls that they are financially stressed and politically restless. It would be a good idea, therefore, to understand what it means to be middle class, and what middle-class people hope for and dream of.

Middle-class economics
“Middle-class economics,” the catch phrase President Obama deployed during his State of the Union address, encapsulates the political salience of middle-class concerns.

It's not a term you can find in any textbook. It is, rather, the result of Obama’s trial and effort to polish his political pitch.

“That’s what middle-class economics is — the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” Obama explained, sounding a lot like President Clinton before him.

“Middle-class economics” is the latest iteration of a theme that Obama has been refining since he campaigning for president in 2008. Earlier versions have included a call to expand the economy from the “middle out” and decrying inequality as the “defining challenge of our time.”

Obama’s State of the Union plan included many measures aimed at helping the middle class, defined in the speech's supporting documents as families making up to $120,000 a year. They include childcare tax credits, credits for families with children attending college, and other tax breaks and benefits.

It’s a plan forged during a time of liberal dissatisfaction with his administration over its handling of the 2014 midterm elections.

In the aftermath of the election, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York faulted Obama for failing to place the middle class at the heart of Democrats’ policy agenda — even suggesting it was a mistake for the president and congressional Democrats to expend their political capital passing Obamacare in 2010 rather than on addressing voters' chief concern, which was the damage done to families’ job prospects and income by the Great Recession.

There is no doubt that the middle class soured on Democrats before the 2014 midterms. Exit polls showed that Republicans had an 11-point advantage among voters earning $50,000 to $100,000.

Schumer strategized with the White House before the latest midterm elections, last November, to refocus the party's attention away from the issue of inequality and toward lifting middle-class incomes.

“Both the White House and the Senate agreed that the decline of middle-class incomes was the most serious issue we face in this country, but the focus had to be on how to get middle-class incomes up, rather than drive other people’s incomes down,” Schumer told the Washington Post after the Democrats were routed.

The numbers
Economists often define the middle class as a range within the overall income distribution, but the range is broad and differs depending on who is setting it.

The median income for American households was $51,939 in 2013, according to the Census Bureau. The middle fifth of household incomes spans from $40,187 to $65,501.

Researchers often use the Census median as a baseline for defining the middle class. Pew Research Center, for instance, has defined the group in some of its analyses as everyone between two-thirds and double the median income, or roughly between $34,600 and $103,900. That includes 43 million households, a little more than one-third of the total population.

But such definitions can obscure more than they illuminate.

They elide the differences among races, household structures, occupations and any number of other considerations that might factor into a person’s understanding of his own definition of class.

In particular, it is awkward to use a purely income-based definition of middle class for the U.S. as a whole. The median household income in the U.S. ranges from $39,012 in Mississippi to $66,481 in Connecticut. A family of three with an income of $80,000 would be upper class in Mississippi, but squarely in the middle class in Connecticut, by Pew’s definition.

Even within states, the gradient of incomes can make the concept of a single middle class tricky. A six-figure household income would put a family just below the median in Arlington County, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington. But it would be three times larger than typical household earnings in Buchanan County, in the heart of Appalachia.

Yet it’s also not obvious that the definition of class should be separated out by region. Many people would consider living in Connecticut a middle-class privilege worth paying for. The cost of living in Mississippi may be lower, but many people would trade a bigger house and more stuff in Mississippi for a modest home and fewer toys in Connecticut.

Political risks and calculations
Economists might not agree on what the right income cut-off for the middle class might be, but it’s clear that the one Obama has been using is way off the mark.

The ceiling for the middle class set in his State of the Union proposals, $120,000, is nearly double the median income in Connecticut. An obvious explanation is that it is politically expedient to suggest that very high levels of income are nevertheless within the middle class; anyone a politician defines as being above the middle class has reason to worry that their wallet is about to be raided.

Obama has set the dividing line even higher in the past.

During the 2008 campaign, he promised to reverse the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy but keep them for the middle class, defined as anyone making under $250,000.

“If you make under $250,000, you will not see your taxes increase by a single dime — not your income taxes, not your payroll taxes, not your capital gains taxes. Nothing. Because the last thing we should do in this economy is raise taxes on the middle class,” Obama said while campaigning in Iowa just days before he was elected.

A household income of $250,000 would place a family in the top 3 percent of the income distribution in 2013. Ultimately, Republicans were able to negotiate to have the Clinton-era rates kick in even higher, at more than $450,000 for married couples.

Obama’s definition would mean that all but the top several million households in the U.S. are middle class, making it perhaps meaninglessly broad. In fact, the implausibility of such an expansive definition of the middle class has turned into a political liability for some candidates who have made similar claims.

During the Arkansas Senate race, incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat, accused challenger Rep. Tom Cotton of voting to raise middle-class taxes by voting for the House Republican budget, which an outside analyst had said would necessitate raising taxes on families making more than $200,000.

Cotton used Pryor’s loose definition of the middle class against him. “Senator Pryor’s comments defining the middle class as making $200,000 were simply out of touch,” Cotton said, noting that the median income in Arkansas is closer to $40,000. Cotton won the race.

Despite the trouble it has caused in the past, the $200,000 middle-class dividing line continues to feature in politicians’ plans. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, for instance, announced a plan for middle-class tax relief in January.

Van Hollen, whose Maryland district includes the Washington suburb of Bethesda and is one of the wealthiest in the country, didn’t intend to define the middle class with his tax plan. But it included a “paycheck bonus tax credit” that would phase out at $100,000 for individuals and $200,000 for working couples, effectively making those incomes the upper boundary of the middle class.

Originally published on February 9, 2015 in the Washington Examiner