What’s It Take to Be Middle Class? A Job

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What does it take to be middle class in America? The timely answer seems to be not home ownership or a college education, but a good job.

In a survey released late last month, 86 percent of the 2,000-plus Americans polled by the Pew Research Center put a secure job at the top of their list of requirements to qualify for the middle class. The next most-popular answer was health insurance, which made the list for 66 percent of respondents in the survey, conducted in July.

Owning a home was considered a sign of membership in the middle class by only 45 percent of those surveyed. Having stocks or bonds rated for only 28 percent.

The importance of work and health care may be a reflection of how the recent scarcity of both is threatening many Americans’ place in the middle class. The poll found that 15 percent of those surveyed had lost their job in the last year alone. “For those self-described as middle class,” noted Wendy Wang, the study’s author, “it’s only a little better, at one in 10.”

Even having a job doesn’t appear to offer any guarantees. Of those who were working, 20 percent told Pew they still had trouble getting health care for themselves or their families. Eighteen percent of working Americans had problems paying their mortgage or rent. (Both figures were significantly higher for the unemployed.)

Wang and her colleagues modeled their study on a 1991 Time/CNN poll that asked almost identical questions. Twenty years ago, home ownership was the top prerequisite for middle class status, followed by having a car or two in the driveway.

Only a third of Americans told Time then that a “white collar job” meant you were middle class. (Ownership of stocks and bonds has stayed relatively steady, registering 41 percent in 1991.)

Though current worries about job losses may have influenced the switch, the new definition of middle class seems to be part of a long-term trend toward employment insecurity, Wang said. Using statistics from the Department of Labor, the report found that, as a ratio to the total U.S. population, the number of adults (16 to 64 year-olds) employed today has sunk to 67 percent—the lowest rate since the recession of the early 1980s.

The 5-point decline in the employment rate over the past five years, from 72 percent in 2006, is the steepest such drop since the end of World War II.

The highest U.S. employment rate in the history of the statistic came in 2000, when 74 percent of adult Americans had a job. When employment began to fall off the next year, it was the first extended decline in 50 years.

The ascendance of health care as a middle class marker may also be a long-term trend, as employers restrict benefits or end them altogether as a form of compensation. Older Americans, traditionally more sensitive to immediate changes in health care policy, are only slightly more likely than their younger counterparts to include health care as a token of mainstream success (71 percent versus 70 percent).

But there were some signs that the raging political debate over health care had caused some respondents to upgrade medical coverage’s economic importance: Significantly more Democrats included health care as an essential part of middle class life than Republicans.