There are many other ways of defining what it means to be ‘middle class’. One is to ask people to categorize themselves. Surveys from Pew show that almost nine out of ten Americans say they are part of the middle class, a number that does not appear to have changed much since the 1930s. Other scholars, including Alan Berube and Alec Friedhoff of Brookings have used the third (i.e. middle) quintile of the national income distribution to define the middle class. This allows them to compare different cities to the national distribution (seethe interactive here). Defined this way, the middle class cannot shrink: 20 percent of us will always be in the middle quintile, whereas the decreasing size of Pew’s middle class reflects the stretching out of the income distribution as inequality increases. Each approach clearly has its drawbacks and advantages.
We took Pew’s definition of the middle-class and applied it to the American Community Survey. The results aren’t exactly comparable: Pew used the 2015 Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement, which is conducted in March and asks people about their market income in the past 12 months; we use the 2014 ACS, which is conducted throughout the year and asks a similar question. But we use the same definition of the middle-class. In the 2014 ACS, we found that roughly 30% of households were upper income, 48% were middle income, and 22% were lower income. So where do the middle class, on Pew’s definition, live? The short answer: Utah.