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Middle-Class Identification Steady in U.S.

Middle-Class Identification Steady in U.S.

Story Highlights

  • 38% say they are middle class; 14% say they are upper-middle class
  • Most of the rest identify as working or lower class
  • Middle-class identification remains lower than before Great Recession

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- About half of U.S. adults consider themselves members of the middle class, including 38% who identify as "middle class" and 14% as "upper-middle class." Most of the rest describe themselves as either "working class" (35%) or "lower class" (11%), with relatively few, 2%, identifying as "upper class."

Middle- and upper-middle class identification remains lower than it was before the Great Recession. Since then, Americans have been more likely to call themselves members of the working or lower class.


Gallup has included social class identification in 10 of its annual Economy and Personal Finance surveys, which are conducted each April. The latest data come from an April 1-19 poll. Gallup asks Americans which of five named social classes they think they belong to. The names of the social classes are not defined for respondents.

Between 2002 and 2005, at least six in 10 U.S. adults considered themselves to be middle or upper-middle class. But middle-class identification has fallen short of that level in the years since, including in 2012 and 2015, when roughly equal proportions identified as working or lower class versus middle or upper-middle class.

By 2018, the percentage viewing themselves as middle class exceeded the combined working- and lower-class group by double digits -- 55% middle/upper-middle and 42% working/lower class. The gap has narrowed to six percentage points (52% to 46%) in the two most recent surveys.

Social-class identification has been stable between 2019 and 2022, even though Americans' ratings of their personal finances and the U.S. economy have gotten significantly worse during that time.

Declining Middle-Class Identification Apparent in Most Subgroups

The Great Recession appears to have changed the way Americans think of their social class. On average, middle- and upper-middle-class identification among U.S. adults has been nine points lower after 2008 (52%) than it was previously (61%). Meanwhile, working- and lower-class identification has increased by the same amount, rising from an average of 36% to 45%. A stable 2% has identified as upper class in both time periods.

These trends in social class identification are apparent among most key demographic subgroups. The notable exceptions are older adults (aged 55 and older), Democrats, and Americans with a postgraduate education, all of whom have not shown meaningful change in social class identification between the two time periods.

Two subgroups -- middle-aged adults and people of color -- show above-average declines in middle-class identification. Since the Great Recession, the percentage of 35- to 54-year-old Americans who identify as middle class or upper-middle class has declined 15 points (from 62% to 47%), and the percentage of people of color who do so has fallen 16 points (from 54% to 38%).


The decline in middle-class identification among Republicans, and the lack of change among Democrats, puts the two groups on par now, whereas Republicans used to be more likely to identify as middle class. Before 2012, 71% of Republicans and 57% of Democrats identified as middle class. Now the figures are 60% and 55%, respectively.

Independents -- who were similar to Democrats before the Great Recession -- are now the least likely political group to identify as middle class, with 46% doing so, down from 57% before 2012.

In general, social class identification is strongly related to educational attainment and household income. Upper-income Americans and college graduates (including those with postgraduate education) are most likely to say they belong to the middle or upper-middle class, while lower-income Americans and those with no formal education beyond high school generally identify as working or lower class.

Older Americans and those who are married are also more likely than others to identify as middle class.

Bottom Line

The term "middle class" is heard a lot in political campaigns and discussions of economic policy. While most Americans likely live in households that are somewhat close to the median income level in the U.S., a smaller number than before think of themselves as members of the middle class. A larger number than before now consider themselves to be working class, if not lower class.

Prior Gallup analysis suggested that the terms "working" and "middle" class may mean different things to working and nonworking Americans. The analysis found that far more retired than nonretired Americans consider themselves middle class. Some Americans may see the question more as an indicator of their employment status than of their socioeconomic status, and retired Americans may be disinclined to think of themselves as "working class" because they are not currently working.

The pattern was less stark in earlier Gallup polling, with only slightly more retired (66%) than nonretired (60%) Americans identifying as middle class between 2002 and 2008. In recent years, the gap has expanded, with 66% of retired and 48% of nonretired Americans identifying as middle class. Nonretired Americans are now about as likely to say they are working class (49%) as middle class.

The decline in identification of middle class could then indicate that Americans are less familiar with the concept of social class than they were in the past. It could also be that Americans are familiar with the term, but many working Americans today don't see their work efforts as yielding sufficient income for them to believe they have achieved middle-class status.

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