What Exactly Does Middle Class in American Look Like?

Despite the so-called recovery, many families continue to struggle, with income and other living standards slipping below thresholds that typically represent middle-class quality of life. We’ve assembled a variety of metrics to help determine whether you’re getting ahead, holding steady, or slipping further than most.


For the 50 percent of families in the middle of the scale, household income ranges from $51,000 to $123,000 for a typical four-person, two-parent family. The median is about $81,000. Those numbers are from 2008, and have probably fallen 5 to 7 percent since then, on account of the recession. Median income for a single-parent, two-child family is about $25,000.

Housing Costs

For two-parent families, the typical home is worth about $231,000, accounting for $17,600 in mortgage payments and other costs per year. Housing costs have risen by more than twice as much as income since 1990, a trend that may finally be reversing thanks to the housing bust.

Home Size

The housing bubble was one factor that boosted housing costs, but the typical family also lives in a much bigger home. The median size of a new, single-family home jumped by 40 percent between 1979 and 2007, to about 2,300 square feet. That may now be declining, as families downsize and some get booted from homes they can’t afford.

Medical Expenses

You’ve probably heard — healthcare costs are going through the roof. A study by the middle-class task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden says the median two-parent family spends $5,100 per year on health insurance and non-covered expenses—assuming an employer provides health insurance. Healthcare costs have risen far more than any other aspect of the family budget since 1990, with no end in sight.


They provide mobility and represent freedom, one reason the typical family spends about $12,400 per year on two medium-sized sedans or the equivalent, with a new-car value of $45,000. The recession may have dampened our love of the road, however: Americans are driving less and car sales are off about 40 percent.

College Savings

The typical family puts aside $4,100 for college expenses for two kids, estimated to cover about 75 percent of expenses at a state university. Financial aid helps with the rest. But if possible, toss more into the college fund: As states face budget crunches, tuition and fees are going up.


One week at the beach or another destination is standard, at a cost of $3,000 or so for four. More affluent families can afford two weeks, at a typical cost of $6,100.

Retirement Savings

A median-income family that saved 3.2 percent of its income—roughly equivalent to the national saving rate—would sock away nearly $2,600 per year for retirement. Of course many families don’t hit even that modest goal, and stock-market losses over the last several years have further shrunk the national nest egg.

Everyday Spending

Clothes, food, utilities, entertainment and other living expenses amount to $14,200 a year for a median-income family. Not surprisingly, this is one set expenses many families are trying to reduce, by buying more discount brands, using less or doing without.

Number of Earners

In 76 percent of two-parent families, both parents work. The higher the household income, the more likely it is that both parents are contributing.

Hours Worked

Few parents will be surprised to hear that Moms and Dads are working more than they used to. The total number of hours worked in a two-parent family is 3,747 per year, up 5 percent since 1990. The increased hours add up to more than four 40-hour weeks of additional work per family.


The typical household head has a high school degree plus about two years of college education, up by more than a full year of college since 1990. Good thing—education is a key factor in lifetime earnings, and high school dropouts face a dim future by nearly every measure.

Free Time

What’s your top priority? In a 2008 poll by the Pew Research Center, it wasn’t healthy kids, a strong marriage or a great career; 68 percent of respondents said it was free time. (And just 12 percent said it was being wealthy.)

Household Net Worth

The typical household has a net worth of about $84,000, according to the Federal Reserve. That’s down 30 percent since 2007, thanks to losses in stock portfolios and home values.


About 18 percent of disposable income, on average, goes toward mortgage payments, auto loans, credit cards and other forms of household debt. That’s a bit higher than it was in the ’70s and ’80s. But since debt payments peaked at the beginning of 2008, at 18.9 percent of income, they’ve been steadily falling.

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