Here's what it takes to be middle class
(The Hill) – What does it take to be middle class? Roughly $82,000 a year in household income in San Francisco, $74,000 in Seattle and $60,000 in Washington, D.C., a new study says, but only $24,000 in Cleveland.
Researchers at SmartAsset, the consumer finance site, tabulated the low and high end of middle-class salaries in 100 large cities and every state.
The analysis adopts a Pew Research Center definition of middle class: Americans whose incomes range from two-thirds to two times the median household income. (Pew also offers a nifty “Are you in the American middle class?” income calculator.)
By applying Pew’s multiplier to city and state medians, the SmartAsset report reveals an income spread that defines what it means to be middle class in different parts of the United States.
“America’s middle class has many different faces,” said Jaclyn DeJohn, managing editor of economic analysis at SmartAsset. “You can be earning $24,000 in Cleveland or $310,000 in Fremont and still be considered middle class.”
Not surprisingly, middle incomes skew higher in some affluent West Coast cities and in well-heeled mega-suburbs.
Fremont, Calif., a city of 230,000 in the Silicon Valley, boasts the wealthiest middle class of any large jurisdiction in America. The median household income is $155,968, which means that a middle-class incomes range from $104,499 to $311,936.
Cleveland houses the least prosperous middle class in the nation, with incomes ranging from $23,827 to $71,124. A Cleveland family with a $100,000 income would feel comparatively wealthy.
The analysis may be of interest to anyone living in a big city or thinking of moving to one, SmartAsset researchers said, as it provides a gauge of how far one’s salary might go and how relatively prosperous one might feel.
“The idea here was to give people a realistic metric to compare themselves to,” DeJohn said. “There’s a different financial reality for every city in America.”
The new report does not attempt to measure the size and shape of America’s full middle class. According to a 2022 Pew analysis, the share of American adults who populate the middle class shrank from 61 percent in 1971 to 50 percent in 2021. Ours is a nation of rising income inequality.
Pew draws on the same formula used in the SmartAsset report, defining the middle class as those with incomes between two-thirds and twice the national median income. That works out to a national salary range of roughly $52,000 to $156,000 in 2020 dollars for a three-person household.
The nation’s median household income was $70,784 in 2021, according to the Census.
The SmartAsset report identified six cities where that sum would not qualify as middle-class: Fremont, mentioned above; San Jose, Calif., with a minimum middle-class income of $84,673; Arlington, the D.C. suburb, with a middle-class threshold of $84,186; San Francisco, at $81,623; Seattle, at $74,223; and Irvine, in California’s Orange County, at $70,869.
Some of the nation’s largest cities rank among the lowest in median income, which means it doesn’t take much coin to qualify as middle class.
In Cincinnati, by Pew’s definition, a household earning $28,631 a year would rate as middle class. In Milwaukee, the middle class starts at $31,247 a year. The middle-class income threshold is $32,689 in Miami, $33,477 in St. Louis, $35,442 in Philadelphia, $36,617 in Baltimore and $37,184 in Houston.
Los Angeles ranks 37th among large cities for middle-class income, with a range from $47,149 to $140,744.
New York ranks 45th, with a middle-class income range from $45,558 to $135,994. (Those figures are for the city as a whole, not Manhattan alone.)
At the state level, the report found middle-class incomes roughly 20 percent higher in the Northeast than in the South.
In Maryland, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., a household would have to earn more than $60,000 to rate as middle class.
Mississippi has the lowest middle-class salary threshold, $32,640, followed by West Virginia ($34,336), Louisiana ($34,898) and Arkansas ($35,194).