Charles Hugh Smith
By the standards of previous generations, the middle class has been stripmined of income, assets and purchasing power.
What does it take to be middle class nowadays? Defining the middle class is a parlor game, with most of the punditry referring to income brackets as the defining factor.
People tend to self-report that they belong to the middle class based on income, but income is not the key metric: 12 other factors are more telling measures of middle class membership than income.
In Why the Middle Class Is Doomed (April 17, 2012) I listed five minimum threshold characteristics of membership in the middle class:
1. Meaningful healthcare insurance (i.e. not phantom insurance with $5,000 deductibles, etc.) and life insurance.
2. Significant equity (25%-50%) in a home or equivalent real estate
3. Income/expenses that enable the household to save at least 6% of its income
4. Significant retirement funds: 401Ks, IRAs, etc.
5. The ability to service all debt and expenses over the medium-term if one of the primary household wage-earners lose their job
I then added a taken-for-granted sixth:
6. Reliable vehicles for each wage-earner
Author Chris Sullins suggested adding these additional thresholds:
7. If a household requires government assistance to maintain the family lifestyle, their Middle Class status is in doubt.
8. A percentage of non-paper, non-family home hard assets such as family heirlooms, precious metals, tools, etc. that can be transferred to the next generation, i.e. generational wealth.
9. Ability to invest in offspring (education, extracurricular clubs/training, etc.).
10. Leisure time devoted to the maintenance of physical/spiritual/mental fitness.
Correspondent Mark G. recently suggested two more:
11. Continual accumulation of human and social capital (new skills, networks of collaborators, markets for one’s services, etc.)
And the money shot:
12. Family ownership of income-producing assets such as rental properties, bonds, etc.
The key point of these thresholds is that propping up a precarious illusion of consumption and status signifiers does not qualify as middle class. To qualify as middle class (that is, what was considered middle class a generation or two ago), the household must actually own/control wealth that won’t vanish if the investment bubble du jour pops, and won’t be wiped out by a medical emergency.
In Chris’s phrase, “They should be focusing resources on the next generation and passing on Generational Wealth” as opposed to “keeping up appearances” via aspirational consumption financed with debt.
What does it take in the real world to qualify as middle class?
Here are my calculations based on our own expenses and those of our friends in urban America. We can quibble about details endlessly, so these are mid-range estimates. These reflect urban costs; rural towns/cities will naturally have significantly lower cost structures. Please make adjustments as suits your area or experience, but please recall that tens of millions of people live in high-cost left and right-coast cities, and millions more have high heating/cooling/commuting costs.
The wages of those employed by Corporate America or the government do not reflect the total cost of benefits such as healthcare insurance. Self-employed people like myself pay the full costs of benefits, so we have to realize there is no ideal average of household expenses. Some households pay very little of their actual healthcare expenses, other pay for part of these costs and still others pay most or all of their healthcare insurance and co-pays.