Homer Simpson is working class. Ned Flanders is middle class. Jake Peralta is working class. Phil Dunphy is middle class. Darryl Philbin is working class. Jim Halpert is middle class.
Working Class vs. Middle Class: What's the Difference?
This is a very good question. It's one of those issues that you don't think about until you do, and once you think about it you can't help but find it everywhere.
Those of us who write about economics use the terms "working class" and "middle class" casually but carelessly. They show up in articles on income, labor and policy but we rarely does anyone slow down long enough to clarify what either status actually means. So let's dive into it.
What Is Middle Class?
Middle class can refer to one of two economic categories.
First, middle class can refer to anyone who makes a certain amount of money compared to the rest of the country. Pew Research has set the standard that most researchers accept as between two-thirds and double the national median income, which at time of writing, was slightly more than $60,000. So the generic income cutoff for middle class in America is:
• Between $40,401 and $120,600 per year.
Now, the catch here is that this refers to household income. A single person living alone needs far less money to be considered middle class than does a family of five. As of the most recent Pew Survey, to be considered middle class by this standard you would need to fall within the following annual income ranges:
• Single person household: $26,093 and $78,281
• Two person household: $36,902 and $110,706
• Three person household: $45,195 and $135,586
• Four person household: $52,187 and $156,561
• Five person household: $58,347 and $175,041
So a married couple making $36,902 per year has officially broken into the middle class.
And this works great in some parts of the country. In some parts of Michigan, a two person household making nearly $37,000 per year may be able to live comfortably. Now, go tell a pair of recent college graduates making $10 an hour at a Manhattan Jamba Juice that they're in the middle class. You'll be surprised just how far someone can drive one of those big smoothie straws into drywall.
Precisely because those of us in economic policy got sick of cleaning blueberry stains out of our clothes, there's a second measure of "middle class." Under this thinking, middle class is defined by how much you make compared to the median income where you live. This is a harder statistic to track but, ultimately, far more accurate.
In the wealthy suburb of Lexington, Massachusetts, for example, the median household makes $162,083 per year. A public defender scraping by on $36,000 won't keep up in this community, which is why middle class here is more properly defined as between $108,595 and $324,166 per year.
Unfortunately there are problems with this formula too, most notably in cities.
In most major cities the median income hasn't moved too far from the national numbers. In Boston the median income is $62,021. In New York City it's $57,782. In Chicago it's $52,497. Meanwhile in these cities, and every other in America, costs of living have soared.
By measure of median income, someone making $41,554 is a member of Boston's middle class. Yet this person will have $33,124 left over after taxes and will spend $25,824 of that just on rent for a one bedroom apartment. Is it really the middle class if you have $600 to live on per month?
What Is Working Class?
That example is part of the reason for the term "working class."
As with middle class, there are two contexts to the term working class. The first is what Gallup has referred to as "subjective social class." This is the historic and cultural context of the working class, and it refers to people who do manual labor for a living. This can mean anyone in a job like a janitor, plumber or beat cop walking the street.
If someone would be considered blue collar, if they don't sit in an office or work mostly at a computer, if they can wear jeans and a t-shirt instead of a suit and tie into work, they are probably part of the traditional working class. (Of all places, Cliffs Notes probably has the best expanded definition of this social status.)
This definition of working class has generally fallen out of favor. In part this is because it was historically seen as an insult. To be working class was to be crude and have lower status than a white collar worker. This is both an inappropriate way to discuss anyone and, frankly, inaccurate in a cultural landscape that has come to highly value blue collar jobs.
Instead, for those of us in economic policy, "working class" has come to fill in the bottom section of middle class. As Gallup's Frank Newport describes it, it is a "socioeconomic positioning that is below that of what is associated with the middle class but above that which is associated with the lower class."
For current use, this is almost exactly right. Millions of Americans fall into the lower-middle zone we discussed above. They make more than the poverty line, and may even technically make enough to be earn a middle class by income, but they still live paycheck to paycheck. Working class today describes having a job but feeling poor, or making enough to get by without much else. This is not a description of poverty or unemployment, but neither is it the description of comfort.
Working class used to be about the kind of job you had. Today it's more a description of economic uncertainty. People in the working class work and know that they have to keep working in a way that the middle class never will.
That's what economists mean by working class, and that's the difference.