Who Comprises the Middle Class?

The middle class is a voting block presidential candidates always try to win, and this cycle is no different. Talks of tax rebates for the middle class and helping it out economically have become campaign staples. Yet, even among the candidates, it seems no one can agree on who exactly makes up the middle class.

The term has become elastic, with candidates using it constantly and indiscriminately because they know it's how many Americans identify.

For example, presidential hopeful Barack Obama has talked about Social Security taxes and said any family earning more than $97,500 is not part of the middle class, while his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton seems to think people earning $100,000 can be part of the middle class.

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney stretched the traditional definition of the middle class to include families with up to $200,000 in his proposal to end all taxes on savings and interest for families in that bracket.

"When a politician says, 'I'm going to do great things for the middle class,' what the voters hears is, 'That politician is going to do something for me,'" said Brooks Jackson of FactCheck.org, which says it holds politicians accountable.

Even the Census Bureau doesn't have a definition, and it seems to mean different things to different people. Seventy-three percent of American families believe they belong in the middle class.

"I would define the middle class between $25,000 and $45,000 a year," said a young white woman in Washington, D.C., in a series of interviews by ABC News.

A middle-aged black man in the same city, however, said a middle-class person is probably someone who makes between $60,000 and $90,000 annually.

In reality, a broad but reasonable definition of middle-class family income ranges from $30,000 to $100,000 a year. And over time, the perks the middle class receives have changed.

Fifty years ago, being middle class was associated with economic stability, with four defining characteristics: owing a home, having a car, paying for health insurance and having a nest egg.

While today the average family does own a car, the stability is gone and it may be struggling on its mortgage payments. For this family, the nest egg is gone and on average it is $8,000 in debt, while a fourth of middle-class families have limited health insurance.

Since the range of income can be so big -- and because the economics of consumer goods and home ownership are changing -- you might find one middle-class family with four cars and four big-screen TVs and a killer mortgage. But another may only have one car, one television and a modest two-bedroom home.

Despite the disparities, one thing is clear.

"Any voter is well advised to look very closely at what politicians are actually proposing to figure out whether their so-called middle class proposals are going to benefit them or not," Jackson said.

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