'Stop equating income and class,' says cultural anthropologist: Here's why

"If we understand class status to be tied to income, then class status is fluctuating wildly."


For many economists, your income decides, or is closely related to, what class you are.

The Brookings Institution defines the U.S. "middle class" as those in the 20th to 80th percentiles of household income. This would make 60% of American households middle class. And the Pew Research Center, which uses government data to take into consideration household sizes and income, found that 52% of Americans lived in a middle-income household in 2018. (To see if you're middle class based on those and other financial measures, use Grow's middle class calculator.)

Looking solely through the lens of income isn't smart, though, some experts say. "It's a very convenient way to measure class status, but it leaves out too much," says cultural anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom, an associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. "We need to stop equating income and class. Income might just be income."

Here's why how much money a person makes doesn't always reflect their class.

How income can be distinct from wealth

A person's salary does not account for where a person comes from financially, Zaloom says: "Income is a snapshot in time."

For example, if a person who comes from a wealthy family starts their career with an entry-level position that pays only $20,000 a year, that doesn't make them poor. They are simply not making a lot of money at that moment. They will likely still be able to buy a home, pay for college, and participate in other cultural activities that are often associated with being upper middle class or even wealthy, regardless of their salary.

However, someone who doesn't come from money and who makes $20,000 a year would be considered poor in some areas of the country, according to Zaloom. A salary of $20,000 is not enough to make many financial investments that are distinct markers of being middle class, such as purchasing a home.

"If we understand class status to be tied to income, then class status is fluctuating wildly," Zaloom says. In other words, if you believe income and class are the same thing, then you'd believe someone who starts their career earning $20,000 but ends it earning $200,000 would experience a class change over their lifetime. Because of the way some families are able to pass on generational wealth and assets, though, this is not always true.

Class and the American Dream

"The federal government contributed to the myth that hard work is always rewarded," says Karyn Lacy, an associate professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Michigan. Yet in the early-to-mid 20th century, the government gave white people opportunities, especially when it came to homeownership, that Black Americans couldn't share.

"When interviewed, suburban whites tend to say that they live where they do because they worked hard, they earned it," she says. "Well, there are a lot of people of color who work hard, too. But the federal government denied Black people access to suburban divisions, like Levittown, while granting access to white home-seekers."

Government policies allowed white people to become homeowners, accumulate wealth over decades, and pass that wealth on to their children. Meanwhile, Black people were relegated to neighborhoods where property values increased less rapidly over time.

"Most white people don't know this history," she says. "So, to them, it looks like white people take good care of their neighborhoods and Black people don't."

Black experts: What's missing from the conversation around the racial wealth gap

Video by Courtney Stith

Economists who only take income into consideration would miss this context. And history and context are important when talking about class, Lacy says: "The federal government's role in creating neighborhood instability is invisible to the average person. And for most Americans, their home is their only asset."

Conflating income and class perpetuates the narrative that those who work hard can become middle class, says Lacy. In other words, she says, it maintains the idea that the American Dream is possible for everyone. The data doesn't bear that out, though. "The evidence shows that if your parents were middle class, you're highly likely to be middle class when you grow up, too," she says. "And if your parents were poor, you will face an uphill battle getting out of poverty once an adult."

Middle-class people can access resources that help their children to "reproduce a middle-class status," she adds. "Poor people do not have access to a lot of these resources and have no idea where to start, because the path to upward mobility is intentionally invisible."

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