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The numbers game: Trying to define the middle class


Suburbs and shopping malls. Condos and computers. Station wagons and stair machines.

All conjure images of the middle class in America.

But it's a group more easily defined by marketing than by math.

When President Clinton says the middle class will benefit from his new agenda, who is he talking about?

Don't ask the Census Bureau, the nation's repository of government statistics, to define "middle class."

It can't.

"We try to stay out of those subjective areas," Census Information Specialist Larry Hugg said.

Demographers say there are too many factors, including home ownership, income and investments, to paint a picture by the numbers.

"It is a very murky concept," said Peter Morrison, a demographer at the RAND Corp., a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif. "People define it different ways, there's no agreed-on definition."

One thing they agree on: Fewer folks are members of the middle class than think they are.

"Just ask everyone to raise their hand," said Bruce MacEvoy, senior research psychologist at SRI International, a non-profit research organization in Menlo Park, Calif. "It's often a self-nomination method. There's an extraordinary bulge in the middle.

"Many more people will say, 'I'm in the middle class' than actually are," he said. "The middle class is touted as a desirable thing. It's being an American. It's out there in the media. Whenever anything becomes visible in that way, people start to overestimate their membership in that category."

The Conference Board, an economic think tank, defines a middle-class household as having an income between $30,000 and $50,000.

About 25 percent of U.S. households fall into that category. Another 25 percent make more than $50,000, said Fabian Linden, executive director of the Consumer Research Center of the Conference Board.

That leaves about half of U.S. households below the middle class. That group includes large numbers of retirees, high school dropouts, single parents and young singles.

"A lot of what determines what is middle class has less to do with what someone earned last year than whether it's a single-parent family, if they're renting or owning," Mr. Morrison said. "Middle class is as much a function of people's family circumstances as what they put down on their income tax form."

Or where they live.

"I'm from Detroit, and when I go back on vacation, I might see five Mercedeses in two weeks," said David House, new-car manager at House of Imports, a Mercedes dealership in Buena Park, Calif. "I come back here, and I see five Mercedeses in five minutes."

Mr. House said the cars are "attainable for people in the middle class, certainly. We do lease 190s to postal carriers."

Despite the recession, the middle class is getting more affluent, said Mr. Linden of the Consumer Research Center. "If you go back 20 years, the people in the middle today are living a lot better than people who used to be in the middle.

"The average American doubles his or her standards of living every 35 years. What is today middle class was back then, not too many decades ago, upper class."

The median U.S. household income today is $30,056.

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