Can a Middle-Class Family Earn $200,000? Yes, Our Editor Explains

Some readers have questioned why families making $200,000 to $400,000 in household income were featured in a Sunday Review article about the middle class in the United States.

We asked Jyoti Thottam, the business and economics editor for Opinion, to give us insight into how she and E. Tammy Kim, a contributing Opinion writer, approached the feature.

When my colleagues and I started this project, we hoped to capture, in some way, the economic worries and frustrations of American families.

“Middle class” is not a concept with a fixed definition. It’s not the same as median income or some other strict statistical definition. It’s a notion of family life that once included a measure of security and stability, as Tammy wrote in her introduction for the project. When we asked readers for their experiences, we did not include specific parameters for “middle class.” We left it open. We asked them to describe their household incomes and to tell us whether they felt “middle class” and what that term means to them.

We were surprised — after reading every single one of the more than 500 responses — to find that the sense of insecurity and instability was pervasive, even among families with very high incomes. Those who responded were forthright about this — many said they were aware that their incomes appear to be very high, and yet, because of the high cost of housing, college tuition, student debt, child care and elder care, the stability and security of middle-class life seemed out of reach, no matter how much they earned or saved.

As we were choosing the people to feature, there were a lot of factors to consider. Family income was only one. We wanted to include geographic variety — there are people here from the West and East Coasts, the South, the Midwest, and from small towns and big cities. We wanted to include people with a range of professions, family backgrounds and experiences — families with young children, older children, single parents and other family arrangements.

And because this is an Opinion piece, we were looking for people who had a strong point of view and wanted to express their ideas publicly. We asked them: What message would you want to send to policymakers about what would help your family? Several had creative, thoughtful ideas that are worth adding to the public discourse about the struggles that American families face today.

If nothing else, I hope this piece has prompted readers — even those who were frustrated by the label “middle class” — to think critically about what that term really means. Americans are still very reluctant to talk frankly about money and class, and I’m grateful to everyone who participated in this project for being willing to speak so candidly.

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