Attitude Check

Where does the middle class begin and end?

Frank Newport Mar 1, 2012

Adriene Hill: This week, Marketplace is rolling out its new Wealth and Poverty Desk. Today, we want to know how income inequality plays with the American public.

It’s time for our weekly Attitude Check. Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport joins us now, as he does every Thursday. Good morning Frank.

Frank Newport: Good morning.

Hill: Where do people believe the middle class begins and ends?

Newport: There is no official data from the Census Bureau, so we don’t know that way. Sociologists have tried to figure it out for many, many years. The way we do it here at Gallup was we simply asked people: What class are you in? We give them a list of class, and the middle class is actually very popular — almost half of Americans say ‘yes, I’m in the middle class.’ That’s a very broad group of people based on their income, and actually another 17 percent say ‘I’m in the upper-middle class.’ So that’s about two-thirds of Americans who put themselves as the middle class. Very, very few people want to say they’re upper class; very, very few people say they’re lower class; the rest of the people that aren’t middle class like the words “working class.”

Hill: Now at what point income-wise do people say, ‘Yep, I’m wealthy. I’m upper class.’

Newport: You know, that’s in the eye of the beholder, but if you really look at the broad spectrum — how much money do you need to make to be rich? — $150,000 is the median. That is, half of Americans say something that is under $150,000-a-year income would make them rich, and half say something over that. But the data show that if you make $30,000 a year, then aspirationally you look up and say, ‘If only I could make $150,000 a year, I would be rich.’

Hill: I want to ask about the wealth gap, which is growing right now between the very rich and the very poor. Is that something voters care about?

Newport: You know, most voters don’t overall. We gave Americans a long list of about nine different issues that they could take into account in voting, and lowering that gap between the rich and the poor was seventh out of the nine. The only two things that were lower in priority were immigration and moral issues. So it’s not a high priority on average. However, that masks the fact that underneath there, if you’re a Democrat and liberal, all of a sudden it shoots way up, because they’re responding to President Obama’s emphasis on lowering the gap between the rich and the poor. But for Independents and Republicans — particularly Republicans — it’s a very low priority issue.

Hill: Gallup’s Frank Newport, thanks.

Newport: My pleasure.

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