What Are the Implications of the Middle Class Income Gaps?

The middle class is usually a section of society in the middle of a socio-economic hierarchy. Its use has, in many instances, been vague, whether measured in terms of income, profession, social status or educational achievement. Any author writing on this subject will inevitably choose the lowest-status term – working class. A writer on the right side of this divide might use the word elite, in order to imply superiority and indicate the cultural elite classes.

In Canada, the term “upper-class” is frequently used. But in the United States it is considered pejorative. Research from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that the median income in the United States is above the mean income for middle-class households. Income trends are, moreover, highly correlated with various characteristics of urbanicity and living standards. As has been shown by several studies, the income level of households in large cities tends to be much higher than those in more rural or suburban areas. Moreover, in large cities, those earning the highest salaries are concentrated in the center of the distribution chain.

Income distribution patterns within the United States are highly dependent on the prevailing social context. In some metropolitan areas, the very wealthy live in the outer ring of suburbia; in other neighborhoods, middle class adults are grouped together with working adults. In some major cities, middle class households are characterized by shared public services; in other locales they are surrounded by high-rise condos or luxury apartments. A sociologist might choose to refer to middle class households as socially disadvantaged or economically disadvantaged.

No matter how researchers define the middle class, its existence is undeniably important to the well-being of American society. But what are the implications of its presence for the typical American family? Are middle class households more or less likely to have healthy, prosperous marriages and do they have a higher rate of teen births? Are they more likely to live in areas where health care costs are higher or if they have any medical insurance at all?

One of the trends that I have seen documented over the past several years is the increase in divorce in America. This may be surprising to some people because middle class citizens are typically considered to be stable and happy. Another possible question, however, is the extent to which the rate of divorce has been influenced by the presidential administration, which has been characterized by an agenda of reducing government spending. If President Trump’s budget were to become a reality, the decrease in middle class incomes would, in fact, exacerbate the problem. And yet, by examining the last few years of Pew Research Center data, it appears that there has not been a significant change in marriage rates or divorce rates.

Another reason to believe that there may be little effect on marriage rates and divorce from a middle class income perspective is because social scientists have long noted that there is usually a significant effect on a couple’s overall happiness from social status and cultural norms. The fact that the wealthy and the middle class have different values and beliefs about marriage, for instance, could account for why the wealthy have a much higher rate of successful marriages and divorce filings than the middle class. In the social science context, this makes perfect sense.

There is one more reason to believe that the increase in the middle-class income is being driven primarily by the presidential administration and its policies. The Trump administration has been quick to point out the success of its initiatives and policies in helping the middle class. Two of the more important examples are the tax relief programs and the insurance replacement plan. Other measures have also shown signs of success such as the energy and infrastructure bill.

One other group of households that is believed to be directly impacted by the presidential administration’s policies and the changes in the economy are the lower-income households. Lower-income families tend to have a smaller amount of wealth and are typically not as financially stable as higher-class families. The Pew Research Center for the Family of Nations found that the share of lower-income households living in what we would consider “high risk” communities, which includes two-income and three-income households, has increased. This is also likely due to the rising portion of college-educated households as well as to an overall increase in the size of the working population.