In the race for the White House, we continually hear the candidates courting the middle class. It's a block of voters that could decide who becomes our next President. But who exactly is the middle class? That depends on who you ask -- and the answers could influence your vote.
Middle Class 'Qualifications'
The presidential hopefuls fill up campaign speeches with proposals that would help the middle class. This is not surprising, when you consider most Americans believe the candidates are talking to them.
However, is there an "official" middle class income range? Responses from random people ranged from $25,000 to as high as $300,000 a year. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn't even have a definition for the middle class.
Then there's geography to consider. Where you live in the U.S. has a profound effect on what income class you are a part of. For example, the middle class in Washington, D.C. is vastly different from the middle class in the middle of the country.
The Census Bureau reports the median household income in the United States is a little more than $48,000. In Washington, D.C., it's just shy of $48,000. However, in nearby New Jersey, the median income is nearly $67,000. Out west, in California, it's a little more than $54,000. Jump to the heartland, in Oklahoma, and it drops to around $39,000. Head south to Mississippi, and the median income drops again -- to a little more than $34,000 a year.
It's a Values Thing
John Haines owns and operates a restaurant in Virginia. His wife is the co-owner and operator of another restaurant in the area.
In spite of their dual income, he still believes they are middle class. He also believes that when the presidential candidates refer to the middle class, they are talking about him. However, to Haines, the middle class is not a specific income range, but a lifestyle.
Scott Hodge, the president of Tax Foundation, a Washington-based nonpartisan educational organization, agrees.
"The middle class is really a value system," Hodge said. "It's not a point on the income scale, despite what you hear from politicians. Middle class is a value system of intact, working families raising the next generation of Americans, our children."
Hodge believes today's middle class is much different from the one 50 years ago.
"One that relies on two incomes, not just one," he said about the current middle class. "So as a result, we find the majority of families with children earning well over $70,000 a year. In many urban areas, a $100,000 a year is on the low end of what's needed to have a middle class lifestyle."
Why Candidates Love the Middle Class Voter
A broad, yet fair definition of the middle class income range is $25,000 to $100,000 a year. Hodge says 80 to 90 percent of Americans consider themselves middle class, and that makes them a ripe harvest for eager candidates.
"That's why politicians are essentially pandering to everyone's feeling that they are somehow in the middle class, even though at the end of the day, some of those policies will only benefit a very small minority of Americans, at the exclusion of others," Hodge said.
So whether they're talking tax cuts, health care or education, who exactly is going to reap the benefits from these presidential proposals? In other words, who do the candidates think is the middle class, and how do they believe that class is defined in terms of income?
The Candidates Weigh In
Sen. Barack Obama's campaign responded directly to those questions posed by CBN News, saying Obama's middle class tax cut phases out for families around $150,000.
Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign did not respond, but Hodge believes her proposals give some insight into her thinking.
"As we look at Hillary Clinton's proposals, she's tending to look at people earning under $200,000 a year, maybe $250,000 a year," Hodge said.
As for Sen. John McCain? His campaign also did not respond, but Hodge says to look at his record.
"If you look at... his support of extending the Bush tax cuts, he seems to have a much broader view of what the middle class is, taking into account cost of living and standards of living across America," Hodge said.
Brooks Jackson of Factcheck.org, which aims to hold politicians accountable, says the bottom line is to pay attention.
"Any voter is well advised to look very closely at what politicians are actually proposing to figure out whether their so-called middle class proposals are going to benefit them or not," Jackson said.
*Original broadcast April 17, 2008.