Are you part of a shrinking ‘middle class’? You might be surprised

The “middle class” is a popular rhetorical point for politicians at the local, state and national levels. But it’s a phrase that’s often used without context: who, or what, is the middle class?

If your household income in Fresno County is somewhere between $33,000 and $98,000 a year, congratulations. No matter your politics or your social attitudes, you’re in the middle class, at least from an economic perspective.

The thing is, there’s a smaller share of households falling into the “middle class” income range now than much of the past four decades.

There is no single definition for the middle class. Economically, one of the most-often cited guidelines is that of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that calculates the “middle class” as households in which the annual income is from 67 percent to 200 percent of the nation’s, state’s or region’s median income.

Chart snip.JPG
Tim Sheehan The Fresno Bee

What that means is that in Fresno and the Valley, as well as in California and across the country, the middle class has been an ever-changing demographic. As the median income changes, so, too, do the thresholds for being counted in the middle class.

Since 1980, the middle class has gotten smaller, while the proportions of low-income and upper-income households have grown considerably. There are statistical wobbles on a year-to-year basis, but the long-term trend indicates a slow deterioration of the ranks of the middle class.

In 1980, the “middle class” was in its heyday in Fresno County, with a higher percentage of households — almost 57 percent — falling into the middle-income range than any subsequent 10-year U.S. Census year or any census American Community Survey estimates since 2005. In a year when the median annual household income in Fresno County was less than $16,000, a household with an annual income of $10,000 would be at the lower fringe of the middle class, and the upper-end of the range was about $31,000. Today, that $31,000 would fall short of the bottom of the middle-class threshold.

By 2016, the most recent year for which Census data on household income is available, the percentage of households in Fresno County’s middle class had fallen to about 41 percent. That’s the year when the middle class included households with annual incomes ranging from just under $33,000 to more than $97,000.

In fact, the middle class has not accounted for more than half of Fresno County’s households since 2007.

Over the same period from 1980 to 2016, the proportion of low-income households rose from about 31 percent to 38 percent. Upper-income households rose from 12 percent in 1980 to about 21 percent in 2016, although that was down from the late part of the 2010s when it was as high as 27 percent.

But there are other factors that play into the whole “middle class” equation. The number of people in a household certainly matters — the more mouths to feed and kids to keep in clothes and shoes, etc., the more money is needed to sustain a household.

And, of course, it’s not just your earnings. There’s the issue of geography and how much it costs to live where you live. Fresno’s median monthly housing cost is just over $1,000. That’s the point at which half of households pay more and half pay less.

In Los Angeles County, by contrast, the median annual household income of a little over $61,000 in 2016 means it takes between $41,000 and $123,000 to be in the middle class. The median cost for housing there is just short of $1,500 a month.

And in San Francisco, well known for high wages combined with a high cost of living, the median housing costs are just shy of $2,000 per month; the median household income was almost $104,000 in 2016, with a middle-class range from about $70,000 to almost $208,000.

The Pew Research Center offers a “middle-class” calculator on its website that estimates whether you are in the middle class based on your annual household income, household size and where you live. It also lets you compare to other households based on education, marital status and race or ethnicity.

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319; Twitter: @TimSheehanNews
Related stories from Fresno Bee