published Thursday, August 1st, 2013

What is 'middle class' anyway? Definitions differ, making it a 'hard question to answer'

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    President Barack Obama speaks Tuesday at Amazon.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
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Do you think you are middle class?

President Barack Obama used the phrase “middle class” 17 times during his speech Tuesday in Chattanooga.

But just what does middle class mean?

Is it an income level? A lifestyle? A state of mind?

“It’s really hard to find an exact answer of what the middle class is,” said Amanda Carmichael, executive director of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. “It is a really hard question to answer.”

Numbers aren’t hard to find — the tricky part is interpreting them.

If you list every Hamilton County household’s income and pick the number smack dab in the middle, that’s the median — or middle — income. It’s considered a more reliable figure than the average, because a few super-high incomes can jack up the average income.

Hamilton County has a median household income of $45,826, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures, while Chattanooga’s median household income is significantly lower at $36,689.

“A [middle-class] range we’ve used in the past is $35,000 to $100,000 a year,” Carmichael said, which would include most households in the county and city.

That’s more inclusive than a U.S. Department of Commerce study. It sets the middle-class household income range between $50,800 and $122,000. By those standards, most of Hamilton County’s households wouldn’t qualify.

Other factors can cloud the picture.

“It’s just all relative. For one, here in Chattanooga, it’s going to be different than what it is in New York City,” Carmichael said. “If you’re single, that is a factor.”

A more subjective take on the subject was offered by Ziad Keilany, head of the economics department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

“I really think this is a fantastic place,” said Keilany, who paints a night-and-day contrast between the Chattanooga he found when he moved here 45 years ago and Chattanooga today.

“I remember Walter Cronkite saying Chattanooga is No. 1 in [air] pollution in the nation,” he said. UTC had only 1,800 students then, compared to 13,000 now.

“The campus is unrecognizable. It’s just stunning,” he said. Leading employers now include nonpolluting insurance firms, Keilany said, such as Blue Cross, Unum and Cigna.

And Chattanooga-area employees have more choices when looking for well-paying jobs than they did 45 years ago, he said.

$11 an hour ‘not going to do it’

Obama gave his “grand bargain” speech outlining his plan to improve the fortunes of the middle class Tuesday at the Amazon Fulfillment Center at Enterprise South industrial park.

Hourly pay is $11 at Amazon’s fulfillment centers, according to an article published Wednesday by Time magazine.

At 40 hours a week, an $11-per-hour salary comes to just $22,880 per year, which is below the $23,550 federal poverty level for a family of four.

“That’s not going to do it,” said Kenneth Chilton, former president of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, who’s going to start teaching this fall at Tennessee State University in Nashville. He figures a family of four needs an annual income of about $45,000 to live a “modest” lifestyle in Chattanooga.

“That shows you how much wages have stagnated,” Chilton said of Amazon fulfillment center pay. He recalled that when he graduated from high school in 1983 in Louisville, Ky., UPS was offering $10 an hour to part-time employees.

It’s true, he said, that a dollar goes further now for some consumer goods, such as television sets.

“But you won’t find a TV manufactured in the U.S. anymore,” Chilton said.

Contact Tim Omarzu at or 423-757-6651.

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