Homer Simpson is working class. Ned Flanders is middle class. Jake Peralta is working class. Phil Dunphy is middle class. Darryl Philbin is working class. Jim Halpert is middle class.
Working Class vs. Middle Class: What’s the Difference?
This is a very good question. It’s one of those issues that you don’t think about until you do, and once you think about it, you can’t help but find examples of it—correct and incorrect—everywhere.
Those of us who write about economics use the terms “working class” and “middle class” casually but carelessly. They show up in articles on income, labor, and policy but rarely does anyone slow down long enough to clarify what either status actually means. So, let’s dive into it.
What Is Middle Class?
Middle class can refer one of two things—a generic, American middle class based on median incomes country-wide, or a more specific, location-based middle class determined by median incomes in a specific area. Let’s take a look at both measures.
Country-Wide Middle Class
First, middle class can denote anyone who makes a certain amount of money compared to the rest of the country. Pew Research has set the standard that most researchers accept as between two-thirds and double the national median income.
Now, the catch here is that this refers to household income. A single person living alone needs far less money to be considered middle class than does a family of five. As of the most recent census (2020), to be considered middle class by this standard, you would need to fall within the following annual income ranges:
Single-person household: $30,000 and $90,000Two-person household: $42,430 and $127,300Three-person household: $60,000 and $180,000Four-person household: $67,100 and $201,270Five-person household: $76,000 and $210,000
So, by this standard, a married couple without children making $45,000 per year has officially broken into the middle class.
And this works great in some parts of the country. In some parts of Michigan, a two-person household making nearly $45,000 per year may be able to live comfortably. Now, go tell a pair of recent college graduates making $14 an hour at a Manhattan Jamba Juice that they’re in the middle class. You’ll be surprised just how far someone can drive one of those big smoothie straws into drywall.
Region-Specific Middle Class
Precisely because those of us in economic policy got sick of cleaning blueberry stains out of our clothes, there’s a second measure of “middle class.” Under this thinking, middle class is defined by how much you make compared to the median income where you live. This is a harder statistic to track, but ultimately, it’s far more accurate.
Luckily, Pew Research offers a handy calculator that allows users to enter their income, household size, state of residence, and metropolitan area to get a more specific idea of what income tier you fall into as well as what percentage of area residents fall into which income classes.
What Is Working Class?
As with middle class, there are two contexts to the term working class.
Cultural Working Class
The first definition of working class is what Gallup has referred to as “subjective social class.” This is the historic and cultural context of the working class, and it refers to people who do manual labor for a living. This can mean anyone in a job like a janitor, plumber, or even a beat cop walking the street (despite the fact that most urban police offers have six-figure salaries).
By this definition, someone is blue-collar if they don’t sit in an office or work mostly at a computer. If someone can wear jeans and a t-shirt instead of a suit and tie into work (excluding those at tech startups with notoriously lax dress codes), they are probably part of the traditional working class. Of all places, Cliffs Notes probably has the best-expanded definition of this social status.
This definition of working class has generally fallen out of favor. In part, this is because it was historically seen as an insult. To be working class was to be crude and have lower status than a white-collar worker. This is both an inappropriate way to discuss anyone and, frankly, inaccurate in a cultural landscape that has come to value so-called blue-collar jobs highly.
Financial Working Class
Instead, for those of us in economic policy, “working class” has come to fill in the bottom section of the middle class. As Gallup’s Frank Newport describes it, it is a “socioeconomic positioning that is below that of what is associated with the middle class but above that which is associated with the lower class.”
For current use, this is almost exactly right. Millions of Americans fall into the lower-middle zone we discussed above. They make more than the poverty line, and may even technically make enough to be considered middle class by income, but they still live paycheck to paycheck.
Many who fall into the “cultural working class” definition above actually make enough money to land in the upper range of the middle class—they can pay their bills, save for retirement, and have enough left over for extras like vacations, vehicles, hobbies, and recreation. The median income for an experienced electrician in Seattle as of 2022, for instance, ranged from around $80,000 to $104,000 annually.
The financial working class today describes having a job but feeling poor, or making enough to get by but without much of a safety net or many extras. This is not a description of poverty or unemployment, but neither is it a description of comfort.
Working class used to be about the kind of job you had. Today, it’s more a description of economic uncertainty. People in the working class work and know that they will likely have to keep working to remain afloat. For many in this category, retirement prospects are less than ideal, as making enough money to save while paying bills is difficult. That’s what economists mean by working class, and that’s the difference.