Blog Archives

What Does It take to Be Upper Middle Class?

What does it take to be upper middle class? According to one analyst, the answer is: at least $100,000 a year for a family of three. The Growing Size and Incomes of the Upper Middle Class (Urban Institute).

The paper claims the upper middle class has grown from 12.9% of the population in 1979 to 29.4% in 2014–in essence, the shrinkage of the “middle class” is not just from households dropping down the ladder but millions of households climbing up to the upper middle class.

Not Just the 1%: The Upper Middle Class Is Larger and Richer Than Ever (WSJ.com)

While the evidence broadly supports this secular shift–the concentration of income and wealth in the top 20% increases while the wealth and income of the bottom 80% stagnates–I think the claim that 30% of all U.S. households are upper middle class grossly overstates the reality, which is it’s become increasingly costly to even qualify as middle class, never mind upper middle class.

I’ve explored these topics in depth over the past few years:

How Many Slots Are Open in the Upper Middle Class? Not As Many As You Might Think(March 30, 2015)

What Does It Take To Be Middle Class? (December 5, 2013)

If we measure financial characteristics of middle class status rather than income, we find $100,000 is borderline middle class, not upper middle class.The above essay lists the baseline of 10 minimum metrics of middle class status. In high-cost regions, $100,000 barely qualifies a household as middle class; to be upper middle class, households must earn closer to $200,000.

A household income of $190,000 is in the top 5% nationally. According to the Social Security Administration data for 2013 (the latest data available), individuals who earn $125,000 or more are in the top 5% of all earners. Two such workers would earn $250,000 together. The 2.8 million households with incomes of $250,000 or more are in the top 2.5%.

I think it is reasonable to define the 12% of households earning between $125,000 (top 15%) and $350,000 (the cut-off for the top 1%) as upper middle class. This is around 14.5 million households, out of a total of 121 million households.

This is a far cry from 30% of all households qualifying as upper middle class.What we’re seeing is the inflation of “middle class” to “upper middle class,” just as a B grade is now an A, and jobs that don’t require a university degree now nominally require a bachelors degree or higher.

The increasingly desperate effort to reach the upper middle class is evidenced by a slew of books and articles on what it takes to succeed in an increasingly winners-take-all economy, and on the anxieties of those trying to “make it”: note that most of the articles are published in magazines/media outlets that appeal to the very upper middle class that’s anxious about maintaining their tenuous hold on prosperity:

How to Save Like the Rich and the Upper Middle Class (Hint: It’s Not With Your House) (WSJ.com)

The Hidden Cost for Stay-At-Home American Parents (Bloomberg)

The War on Stupid People: American society increasingly mistakes intelligence for human worth (The Atlantic)

The Limits of “Grit” (New Yorker)

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. (via Ron G.)

The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley (via Ron G.)

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (book)

I’ve laid out my own bootstrap blueprint in Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy (hint: don’t cling to credentials and privilege as your strategy–acquire skills and entrepreneurial income streams).

What’s left unsaid in all these articles is much of the upper middle class is prospering due to privileged positions that are increasingly at risk of disruption–a topic I discussed in If You Want More Jobs and More Job Stability, Disrupt More, Not Less (June 21, 2016) and How Many Law Schools Need to Close? Plenty (June 20, 2016).

And just a reminder: of the supposed 30% of households who are upper middle class, only the top 10% have significant wealth-building assets: that tells us in no uncertain terms that two-thirds of the supposedly upper middle class 30% are only middle class.

A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs for All is now available as an Audible audio book.

Tagged with: , , , ,

What Killed the Middle Class?

Everyone knows the middle class is fading fast. I’ve covered this issue in depth for years, for example: Honey, I Shrunk the Middle Class: Perhaps 1/3 of Households Qualify (December 28, 2015) and What Does It Take To Be Middle Class? (December 5, 2013)

This raises an obvious question: what killed the middle class? While many commentators try to identify one killer cause (for example, the U.S. going off the gold standard in 1971), the die-off of the middle class is more akin to the die-off in honey bees, which is the result of the interaction of multiple causes (factors that increase the toxic load dumped on bees and other pollinators by modern agriculture).

Longtime collaborator Gordon T. Long and I discuss the decline of the middle class and other key topics in a new 29-minute video How did that work out for you?

So where do we begin this detective story? With the engine of all real prosperity, productivity. This chart reveals that wages stopped rising with productivity around 1980.

Here’s another look at the same phenomenon:

Productivity has been slipping since around 2003: Alan Greenspan:”Productivity is Dead”

Cause #1: declining productivity, which means the pie of real wealth is no longer expanding.

Exhibit #2: middle class wage earners have not received any of the gains.Wages as a percentage of GDP have been falling for decades, with occasional blips up in tech/housing bubbles:

Inflation-adjusted household income has dropped back to levels first reached in the 1980s:

More recently, wages have actually declined, regardless of educational attainment:

Income gains have all flowed to the top 10%, with most of the gains being concentrated in the top 5% and top 1%:

If the middle class didn’t receive any of the gains, who did? Corporate profits have soared to unprecedented levels:

Cause #2: all the gains in the economy have flowed to corporations and the top 10% of financiers, managers and technocrats.

But wait a minute–hasn’t the rising stock market enriched the middle class?Short answer: no. Middle class household wealth has absolutely cratered since the top of the housing bubble in 2007, and hasn’t recovered.

Why? Middle class wealth is based not in stocks but in the family home. The middle class does not own enough financial assets to have participated in the latest stock market bubble, while the majority did not recover the wealth lost in the housing bubble bust. This is the cost of allowing the financial sector to financialize housing and mortgages in the 2000s.

Cause #3: the middle class doesn’t own the “right” assets to benefit from systemic financialization and financial speculation.

How about rising costs? The federal agencies tasked with measuring inflation assure us inflation is near-zero. But these measures underweight big-ticket costs like healthcare and higher education, where costs have exploded higher, greatly increasing the burden on the middle class:

Cause #4: soaring costs of big-ticket expenses such as higher education and healthcare. Saving $10 on cheap jeans imported from Asia does not make up for 135% jumps in tuition and college fees, and $100 decline in the cost of a laptop computer does not make up for healthcare insurance and out-of-pocket expenses in the tens of thousands of dollars per household.

Correspondent Kevin K. submitted this article and accompanying note: Colleges with the biggest tuition hikes (my ala mater University of Hawaii-Manoa clocked in with an increase of 137% since 2004.)

“It looks like the article linked above didn’t do much research since:
University of California Davis
2004 in-state tuition $5,684
2015 in state tuition $13,951
Percentage increase 145.44 percent”

There is no way middle class households with declining real incomes can pay soaring costs imposed by state-enforced cartels and gain ground financially. If the four structural trends highlighted above don’t reverse, the middle class is heading for extinction, the victim of financialization, the glorification of financial speculation via central bank-central state policies, the decline of productivity and rising costs imposed by state-enforced cartels.


We need a new system, one we control from the ground up:
A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs
for All
. The Kindle edition is $8.95 and the print edition is $20.82.

Tagged with: , , , ,

The Cultural Contradictions That Have Crippled the Great American Middle Class

Conventional explorations of why the middle class is shrinking focus on economic issues such as the decline of unions and manufacturing, the increasing premiums paid to the highest-paid workers and the rising costs of higher education and healthcare.

All of these factors have a role, but few comment on the non-economic factors, specifically the values that underpin the accumulation of capital that is the one essential project of middle class households.

Daniel Bell’s landmark 1976 book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism held that“capitalism–and the culture it creates–harbors the seeds of its own downfall by creating a need among successful people for personal gratification–a need that corrodes the work ethic that led to their success in the first place.”

I would phrase this in the language of values and capital:

The primary cultural contradiction of the Great American Middle Class is the disconnect between the values needed to build capital and those of gratification via debt-based consumption.

(more…)

Tagged with: , , , , ,

Honey, I Shrunk the Middle Class: Perhaps 1/3 of Households Qualify

The Pew Research Center’s recent report The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground: No longer the majority and falling behind financially made a media splash, as it reported that less than 50% of adults are members of the Great American Middle Class.

(more…)

Tagged with: , ,

Here’s Why Housing Must be Propped Up

The Powers That Be have gone to extraordinary lengths to prop up housing by whatever means are necessary since the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008: the Federal Reserve has pushed mortgages rates down by buying mortgage-backed securities, the federal housing agencies (FHA, VA) have issued millions of low-down payment loans, and the federal government has essentially taken over the mortgage industry, backing 90+% of all mortgage loans.

Why is the status quo so keen on propping up housing?

(more…)

Tagged with: , ,

Time to Trade in Your Jag, Benz, BMW for a Dented Econobox: Days of Rage Are Coming

It’s time to trade in your Jag, Mercedes, BMW (and maybe your Prius, Volvo, Lexus, etc.) before the Days of Rage start. As I’ve explained before ( As the “Prosperity” Tide Recedes, the Ugly Reality of Wealth Inequality Is Exposed), the rage of the masses who have been losing ground while the Financier Oligarchs, the New Nobility and the technocrat class reap immense gains for decades has been suppressed by the dream that they too could join the Upper Caste.

But once the realistic odds of that happening (low) sink in, the Days of Rage will begin. For those still who don’t know the facts of rising inequality, here’s what you need to know.

(more…)

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Memo to the Fed and its Media Tool Hilsenrath: We’re Not Here to Enrich Your Corporate Cronies

The Federal Reserve is appalled that we’re not spending enough to further inflate the value of its corporate and banking cronies. In the Fed’s eyes, your reason for being is to channel whatever income you have to the Fed’s private-sector cronies–banks and corporations.

If you’re being “stingy” and actually conserving some of your income for savings and investment, you are Public Enemy #1 to the Fed. Your financial security is nothing compared to the need of banks and corporations to earn even more obscene profits. According to the Fed, all our problems stem from not funneling enough money to the Fed’s private-sector cronies.

(more…)

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Endangered Species: The Self-Employed Middle Class

Including the professional class, perhaps 3% of the workforce is truly independent.

Being self-employed (i.e. owning your own small business that does not require employees) is an integral part of the American Dream. Many start out dreaming of a corner office in Corporate America, but as they move up the ladder, many become disillusioned by the process and the goal: do I really want to spend my life making big-shots even wealthier?

Bureaucracies (government and corporate) are safe sources of employment, but at a cost: they’re often soul-deadening.

Many dream of making a living doing something they actually care about, and that often means striking out on your own, i.e. self-employment.

This raises an interesting question: how many self-employed people in the U.S. actually earn a middle class income? Since all the government statistics have a line at $50,000, and $50,000 might support a minimal middle class lifestyle in areas with a low cost of living, let’s use $50,000 in annual income as our minimum.

(more…)

Tagged with: , ,

How Many Slots Are Open in the Upper Middle Class? Not As Many As You Might Think

Not only are there not that many slots in the upper middle class, the number of open slots is considerably lower.

If America is the Land of Opportunity, why are so many parents worried that their princeling/princess might not get into the “right” pre-school, i.e. the first rung on the ladder to the Ivy League-issued “ticket to the upper middle class”? The obsessive focus on getting your kids into the “right” pre-school, kindergarten and prep school to grease the path to the Ivy League suggests there aren’t as many slots open as we’re led to believe.

Let’s set aside the endless debate over what qualifies a household to be “middle class.” Most people define themselves as middle class, with little regard for their income. Let’s cut to the chase and ask: how many young people aspire to joining this ill-defined middle class? Does this mean a rising standard of living and security? Not any more.

If you want those things, you must aspire to join the upper middle class.

(more…)

Tagged with: , , , , , ,

The Decline of Small Business = Decline of Basic Skills

An economy where most people work for the state or a global corporation is an economy that has lost its knowledge of the key entrepreneurial building blocks.

The decline of small business has numerous long-term consequences. One is the decline of the middle class, as entrepreneurial enterprise is a key pathway to generational wealth-building and prosperity.

Another is the loss of employment opportunities. As U.S. businesses are being destroyed faster than they’re being created, there are fewer sources of employment.

(more…)

Tagged with: , , ,

The Solution to the Declining Middle Class: Destroy Fixed Costs and Debt

The solution to the erosion of the middle class lifestyle is to destroy debt and other fixed costs and eliminate self-sabotaging discretionary consumption.

Last week I covered the structural dynamics causing the decline of the middle class. In general, the costs of untradable services (healthcare, higher education, government) and the rot of financialization have increased while wages have stagnated. The Federal Reserve’s “solution” was to make everyone who owned a house a speculator who could only keep even with rising costs by riding the asset bubbles higher and then extracting the “free money” generated by these bubbles before they popped.

(more…)

Tagged with: , , , , ,

The Decline of Small Business and the Middle Class

The only way to not just survive but thrive as an entrepreneurial enterprise is to destroy fixed costs and labor overhead.

It is not coincidental that the middle class and small business are both in decline.Entrepreneurial enterprise and small business have long been stepping stones to middle class incomes and generational wealth, i.e. wealth that is passed down to future generations rather than consumed. As the headwinds to entrepreneurial enterprise and small business rise, the pathway to middle class prosperity narrows.

(more…)

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,