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Who is the middle class?

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Sarah Gardner: The political conventions are all over and in case you didn’t hear the phrase “middle class” enough, Krissy Clark from our Wealth and Poverty Desk has been listening closely to both candidates and just who they’re appealing to. Hi Krissy.

Krissy Clark: Hi Sarah.

Gardner: So Krissy, just who is this middle class that both the Democrats and the Republicans have been appealing to?

Clark: I’ve been asking around and the answer that I got from one guy was pretty illustrative:

Doug Holtz-Eakin: Don’t go asking that around, you’re going to ruin everything.

That was economist Doug Holtz-Eakin. He was one of the senior advisers for one of the last Republican presidential nominees, John McCain. Of course, Holtz-Eakin was being a little tongue-in-cheek, but it gets to the slippery, Rorschach test-ness of the phrase middle class on either side of the aisle, especially during a presidential campaign. Because don’t forget, almost half of Americans describe themselves as middle class, even though that covers a huge spectrum of incomes.

Gardner: Right. But how do economists actually define middle class?

Clark: Well, not rich and not poor. One of the simplest explanations I’ve seen is all adults with annual household income between about $40,000 and $120,000.

Gardner: So after listening to both the Democratic Convention, the Republican Convention, what do we know now about how Romney defines middle class and how Obama defines middle class?

Clark: Of course that’s hard to say definitely, but just for kicks I did a word count of how many times each man used the phrase. Obama used it five. Romney used it twice. But then Romney used entrepreneur once and Obama never used that one, so maybe that says something about the kind of middle class person Romney is focused on. As for specific phrases, I was struck in Romney’s speech when he said:

Mitt Romney: Unlike President Obama, I will not raise taxes on the middle class of America.

Now maybe Romney is talking about the penalties that uninsured people would have to pay under Obama’s health care plan, or maybe he’s talking about Obama’s proposal to increase taxes on households making over $250,000, in which case that also says something about who Romney includes in the middle class.

Gardner: And so Krissy, what about Obama’s speech then?

Clark: One of the middle class moments in his speech was when he said:

Barack Obama: I refuse to ask middle class families to give up their deductions for owning a home or raising their kids just to pay for another millionaire’s tax cut.

So Obama’s drawing a much brighter line between the middle class and the rich. He also made a lot of references to education and college as a gateway to opportunity. Of course, if you talk to economists, most jobs in the next several decades won’t be owning small businesses or being educated, white-collar professionals. Most of the jobs will be in the service sector — janitors, home health care workers, restaurant servers. So the real trick is to turn those jobs that the bulk of Americans will have into middle class jobs.

Gardner: Right. Krissy Clark from our Wealth and Poverty Desk, thanks a lot.

Clark: Thank you.

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