When we think of a million dollars, many of us imagine golden toilet paper and flashy sports cars. In reality, you likely have met more millionaires then you realize, because they aren’t wearing it on their sleeves at your school’s PTA meetings or at your church’s ice cream social.
Families earning seven-figure incomes aren’t typically described by others as middle class, but that’s exactly how many millionaires identify themselves. A recent CNBC Millionaire Survey found that 44 percent of 750 Americans surveyed – each earning $1 million or more – described themselves as “middle class,” with another 40 percent self-classifying as “upper-middle class.”
Such is the case with retirees Karen and Barry Robertson, a debt-free couple with a “comfortable net worth” and a six-figure income. While the two don’t quite reach millionaire status, Karen told Forbes: “I’ve never thought of us as anything but middle class.” Her assertion, though not untrue, is likely to be scoffed at by families earning closer to $50,000 – a much lower income (also considered middle class) that likely doesn’t provide the same comforts once associated with a middle-class lifestyle: comforts such as a comfortable home, a car, and enough money left over to pay for college educations and annual vacations.
This might make you wonder what “middle class” even means. If even millionaires are apparently middle class, why is there such a focus on creating a strong middle class in America?
Middle Class is State of Mind
The term “middle class” is ambiguous at best and has been described differently since first becoming popular after World War II. The size of the middle class depends on how you define it, which can vary from certain types of workers (everyone from highly educated professionals to skilled craftsmen and lower-level management) to incomes ranging from the national median (around $51,000 per year) to well above $100,000. But Margaret J. King, director of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, told Forbes, the definition of “middle class” has less to do with income and more to do with the attitudes of workers who identify as such.
“Contrary to popular opinion, middle class has little to do with wealth…Middle class is a mindset that rests on the platform of education, decision-making, upward mobility, faith in the future and in the power of self-determination.”
What characterizes the middle class, King says, is a faith in the “American Dream,” or the idea that getting an education and working hard should be enough to reap rewards at both work and at home. These workers identify as having careers, not jobs, an important distinction that further characterizes their belief in the notion of a social contract – one that, in exchange for their time and talent, should provide them with the means and freedom to spend time with family and give back to the community.
A Strong Middle Class Equals a Strong Economy
Headlines about the destruction of the middle class are common these days, as families continue to recover from the 2008 recession and contend with income inequality – a national concern seen as a primary cause of a shrinking middle class.
According to polling from Hart Research Associates, Millennials in particular say “they have it harder than previous generations in securing a middle-class lifestyle,” including the ability to save for retirement, own a home, secure decent-paying jobs and get an education beyond high school. Other segments of the population, including seniors, agree that today’s young people are finding it more difficult than they did to achieve middle-class status.
A decrease in the middle class is worrisome because it creates a domino effect, impacting everything from government spending on education and infrastructure – not often seen as a priority for wealthier folks – to consumer spending and business growth. A strong middle class is the bedrock of a sustainable economy and is key to our country’s continued success. In plain speak: unless we address income inequality and create better-paying jobs soon, research suggests a disappearing middle class could spell disaster for our country’s future.
I don’t presume to know how to restore the middle class to its former glory, but I do know there are ways for current members to combat some of its common struggles. By being proactive about saving for retirement, making debt payoff a priority and seeking professional financial advice, middle-income folks can begin attaining a solid financial future.
The middle class is vital to this country’s success because they’re the hard-working folks that help our country run, regardless of their income level. Our churches and school PTA boards are where middle class families serve our communities and help make our neighborhoods friendlier places. It’s these families that we set out to help when we founded Two West, and it’s these families that we’ll continue to help find ways to stay financially healthy.
What do you think makes someone middle class? Do you consider yourself a part of it? Join the conversation by tweeting @TwoWestAdvisors!