“Joe Biden is running for president to rebuild the middle class—and this time make sure everyone comes along.” So pledged the current president of the United States during his election campaign. To address “middle class” Americans is, in effect, to speak to the largest possible audience, as many both above and below the middle-income threshold understand themselves as belonging to it. Promoting the middle class might be a way of reducing stark divides between rich and poor or even just increasing social stability. But the term itself is so contested, and so subjective, that it can sometimes have the ring of empty political jargon. What is middle class in America today?

Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University and the author of the forthcoming book We Have Never Been Woke: Social Justice Discourse, Inequality, and the Rise of a New Elite. Al-Gharbi says that in America, rich and poor alike tend to self-define as middle class because the term suggests that one is a regular, hardworking person. There’s a social danger in this tendency, he thinks, particularly in wealthy people not understanding or acknowledging themselves to be wealthy. When the rich consider themselves as middle class, often focusing on overstated distinctions between them and the super-rich, they reinforce a mindset that they belong to an aspirational rather than a privileged class—and ultimately take less social responsibility for the plight of the disadvantaged. While rich people in predominantly liberal areas often view themselves as proponents of equality, Al-Gharbi says, their priorities tend to be reliably out of touch with the concerns of those who have less than they do.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Who belongs to the American “middle class”?

Musa al-Gharbi: If defined in terms of income, it’s anything above the poverty line, but below the top income—10 or 20 percent.

Basically, everyone in America thinks of themselves as middle class, in a way that’s often inaccurate. Even people who are below the poverty line. And similarly, people who are well into the upper 20 percent, if you ask them, What are you? they don’t say, Oh, I’m rich, they say, I’m middle class.

Bovy: Who might be a typical, or unambiguously, middle-class American at this point? Middle-income, presumably, but what other characteristics would this person have?

Al-Gharbi: The middle class is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, occupation, and educational background. A lot of times when people talk about poverty, they tend to refer to minorities, but most Black people are not poor. They’re middle class. And most people in America who fall below the poverty line are white.

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