Are You Actually in the Middle Class?

The typical middle class family in America makes $64,000. The typical American family budget is $63,000. While that doesn’t leave much wiggle room, the numbers are significantly more dismal in America’s more populous cities.

What is the Middle Class?

“The middle class” is a concept almost all Americans are familiar with, though there may not be a general consensus over what it actually means. When the baby boomers were in high school, “middle class” might have meant a decent house with all the comforts, healthy, well-nourished children and a family car. A google image search for “middle class” turns up a lot of pictures of smiling, well dressed families in front of new-looking 2,000 square-foot homes. But the concept of the middle class has changed in recent years. The strict definition of “middle class” is the group of people between the upper class and lower class. With the top one percent so stratospherically high and the bottom one percent so subterraneanly low however, identifying the middle class by the dictionary definition might be impossible.

middle class income america houseMiddle Class by Income

Taking the middle class to mean the group of income earners in the middle, the middle class in America would be those families with incomes at the median. Since the U.S. median income is $64,000, that would put the typical middle class family at $64,000 per family per year, or about $32,000 per spouse.

How does $64,000 per household compare to the public ideal of the middle class lifestyle? The answer is, it’s hard to say. The median family budget for the United States hangs at $63,000. At that rate, the typical U.S. family would have $1,000 a year left over for retirement savings. The math makes sense, since most American families have saved very little by the time they retire.

middle class americaLooking at median incomes and median budgets doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s because the figures vary so much by city. For instance the median income in Detroit is only $30,000, while in San Jose, California it’s $103,000. In Cleveland, Ohio the median family income isn’t far from Detroit’s at a rock bottom $32,000. Yet Cleveland’s median family spends an estimated $62,000 per year. That leaves the typical family in Cleveland in the hole to the tune of $30,000 a year.

In well-heeled Seattle, the median family pulls in $102,000 a year. The median family budget in that city? About $70,000.

The American Dream by City

So how easy is it to be in the middle class? Looking at different cities gives different results. It stands to reason that any city where the typical family budget outstrips the typical income would be a hard place to break even. Below is a list of nine major U.S. cities, with their median family income, median family budget and how much is left over.

middle class median income vs median budget

In fact according to the table above, the only U.S. city out of the nine we list where it’s possible to afford the median lifestyle on the median income is Seattle. All the others would have the median family losing tens of thousands of dollars per year just to stay afloat. In some ways the list shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. It’s a generally held belief that city living is expensive. One takeaway that goes against the conventional wisdom is that many people believe that city incomes largely make up for the elevated cost of living in cities. While this idea may hold true for some, it doesn’t seem to bear out for the middle class.

What the Middle Class Life Looks Like in Selected Cities

In New York City, the median family income is $57,000 and the median family budget is $95,000. Assuming the median family housing cost of $1,119 makes up part of that budget, the typical New Yorker spends about $6,800 a month on bills. According to Zillow’s affordability calculator, that means the median New York city dweller can’t afford a home. Sharing an apartment with a friend is certainly an option, but it won’t deliver on the common image of the middle class lifestyle.

middle class in america home dc income

The middle class home in Washington D.C.? This house goes for just over $216,000.

Washington D.C. fares slightly better. D.C. has a median family income of $71,000 and a median family budget of $90,000. It also delivers a median monthly housing cost of $1,184. According to Zillow, that translates to the ability to afford a $217,000 house. While that shakes out a lot better than NYC’s result, the home price is still nothing stellar in the nation’s capital. $217,000 will fetch a modest 1,300 square foot house on the far Northeast boundary of the city. Still not exactly the picture of the American dream.

middle class income america home seattle

Middle class in Seattle? This house is listed at $379,000.

What about Seattle, with its $102,000 median family income and its $70,000 median family budget? Seattle’s median monthly housing cost is $1,191. According to Zillow, the median Seattle dweller can afford a house worth $379,000. While that again seems like a lot, a house in that price range in a good neighborhood runs 1,100 square feet with a two bedroom layout.