Maybe no group of Americans has been courted and fawned over more this election season than the middle class.
Mitt Romney says he wants to bring back good jobs for the middle class.
President Obama says he wants to give tax relief to the middle class.
Romney says he won’t increase taxes on the middle class.
“The middle class takes center stage in every presidential election,” said Rich Morin, a senior editor at the Pew Research Center. “But it’s particularly relevant this year because, as we found, the size of the middle class is shrinking and the Great Recession has taken a considerable toll on these Americans.”
But what, exactly, is middle class?
Is it William Bucierka, a retiree from West Seneca?
Is it Tim and Lisa Burgett, a double-income couple from Hamburg?
Is it Amy Mirand, a data manager from Kenmore?
“If you look at the political discussion, the definition of the middle class depends on who is talking and who they’re talking to,” said Mikhail Melnik, a former Niagara University economics professor now teaching in Atlanta.
“It’s very widespread,” Melnik said. “Someone with an income of $45,000 will be in the middle class, but according to our politicians, someone with $250,000 is also in the middle class.”
The term “middle class” is often used colloquially, but it’s a bit trickier to actually calculate. Not even the U.S. Census Bureau has a standard definition for middle class, because the concept can be measured in ways beyond household income.
Middle class can include someone’s net worth, education or lifestyle. You also need to consider the number of people in the household.
“I would say it’s between $40,000 and $60,000,” said Bucierka, 59.
“Sixty thousand dollars or less,” said Mirand, 55.
“Between $40,000 and, probably, $100,000,” said Tim Burgett, 42.
A recent study by Pew calculated middle income as $39,000 to $118,000 – about two-thirds to double the nation’s median income, or roughly $68,000 for a family of four.
Another study by the Brookings Institution also used $68,000 for a family of four – roughly triple the poverty line.
One simple way to measure the middle class might be to look at those in the statistical middle of the income distribution.
In Erie and Niagara counties, the middle 20 percent of households had an income between $35,984 and $58,682 in 2011, according to census estimates.
That’s about 93,000 homes.
“I would consider myself middle-class,” said Mirand, a former epidemiologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute who works as a data manager now. “I’m not in debt. I don’t live large, but I live good.”
The Kenmore mother is happy with the job Obama has done, but it’s important to her that the middle class get more opportunities to go to college.
And the notion that a household income of as much as $250,000 could be considered middle-income – as the candidates have suggested – is laughable to Mirand.
Others would agree, but the definition of middle class is going to vary from region to region, said Mark Zaporowski, professor of economics and finance at Canisius College.
Middle income in the Buffalo region, where the cost of living is fairly moderate, is going to be different than the middle income in metropolitan New York City, for example, Zaporowski said.
The income ranges from $47,584 to $80,527 for those downstate households living in the middle, census estimates show.
“It’s nebulous,” Zaporowski said. “Different people define it in different ways. Everyone is looking at the definition from their own perspective.”
Bucierka would consider himself middle-class, too.
The military veteran worked at Nabisco for 30 years before retiring in 2007. Now, he lives off his pension and disability payments, waiting for his Social Security to kick in.
Bucierka has been a registered Republican since Richard Nixon was president, so he has heard all the politicians since then talk about helping the middle class. This time around is nothing new.
But he admits it’s been a tough few years for the middle class.
“Terrible,” Bucierka said.
Groceries are so expensive, he said.
Fuel prices are rising.
The cost of a college education has soared.
And he can’t believe the cost of health insurance.
“This has been a terrible decade for the middle class,” said Morin, the senior editor at Pew, a Washington D.C.-based “fact tank” that studies issues and trends shaping America.
“Since 2000, the middle class has shrunk in size, it has fallen backward in income and wealth and lost some of its can-do optimism about the future,” Morin said.
Described as a “lost decade” for the middle class, the 2000s saw inflation-adjusted income fall 5 percent for America’s middle-income group, while their wealth – assets minus debt – dropped 28 percent, according to the Pew report released in August.
Eighty-five percent of the middle-class people surveyed said it has been more difficult to maintain their standard of living, while nearly two-thirds cut household spending because money was tight, the report added.
“We just need some stability,” Burgett said. “The economy needs to be stable. It’s something we haven’t had in awhile.”
The Burgetts consider themselves middle-class. Tim is a retail manager, while his wife, Lisa, does cleaning. Both are Obama supporters.
Financially, the Burgetts don’t consider themselves worse off than they were four years ago.
But they don’t feel they’re better off, either.
WHAT IS THE MIDDLE CLASS?
The 20 percent of Buffalo Niagara households in the middle of the income distribution earned between $35,984 and $58,681 in 2011. Here’s how the rest of the households in the region break down, along with a comparison with income distribution in the U.S. and metropolitan New York City.
20% Median: $47,081
Metropolitan New York City
20% Median: $62,322
20% Median: $50,502
Source: U.S. Census Bureau