Most Americans Think They're Still Middle Class, But Worry They Might Not Be For Long

06/02/2015 02:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

America's middle class may be in trouble -- but what it means to be in the middle class depends on who you're talking to.

A recent Gallup poll found a growing segment of Americans referring to themselves as "lower or working class" instead of "middle class," while a New York Times article suggested that the term was dropping out of favor among presidential candidates -- Hillary Clinton, for example, uses "everyday Americans," while Scott Walker is partial to "hard-working taxpayers."

“It used to be ‘middle class’ represented everyone, actually or in their aspirations, but now it doesn’t feel as attainable,” David Madland, the managing director of economic policy at the Center for American Progress, told the Times. “You see politicians and others grasping for the right word to talk about a majority of Americans.”

A new HuffPost/YouGov poll shows Americans are distinctly aware of both their financial limitations and the all-too-present possibility of slipping from the ranks of the middle class altogether, but suggests the term remains broad enough to mean entirely different things to different people.

The vast majority of people -- 88 percent -- still consider themselves within the orbit of the middle class: Asked to rank their income on a five-point scale, 12 percent say they're upper-middle class, 33 percent say they're lower-middle class and the remaining 43 percent say they're squarely in the, well, middle of the middle class.

Americans, it turns out, tend to stretch their definitions just enough to include themselves.

Those in households making less than $40,000 a year say a middle-class annual salary is anywhere between a median $30,000 and $50,000. Those making more than $80,000, by contrast, see $50,000 as the lowest middle-class salary, with their range extending up to $125,000.

People making between $40,000 and $80,000 define the middle class as -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- $40,000 to $80,000.

Expectations for the trappings of a middle-class life differ, too. A majority in every income bracket agreed that home ownership, saving for retirement and staying out of debt were reasonable goals. Those in the highest bracket, though, were 20 points more likely than those in the lowest bracket to say paying for a child's college education was realistic, and 19 points more likely to say that taking an annual vacation was.

Just 37 percent of Americans who describe themselves as part of the middle class, and 15 percent who say they're lower-middle class, feel they're making enough money to live comfortably.

More say instead they're "just getting by," while 20 percent of the lower-middle class say they're not even making enough to do that.

Most also see their hold on the middle class as somewhat precarious: 57 percent say they're concerned that they might fall to a lower economic class in the next few years. That worry is especially pronounced among the self-reported lower-middle class, two-thirds of whom say there's a chance they could fall out of the middle class entirely.

That tenuousness had made concerns about the middle class -- however they're referred to -- a major talking point of the 2016 election cycle. Across party lines, though, many Americans are skeptical as to how much any candidate can do to help. Fewer than one-third of Republicans, Democrats and independents alike think a president can make a big difference in expanding the middle class. Thirty-six percent of Americans say a president can make only a minor difference, and 17 percent that they can make no difference at all.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted May 20-22 among U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the poll's methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov's reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

What does being middle class mean to you? Email your story to openreporting@huffingtonpost.com and let us know. Include your name, the city you live in, and whether you're willing to be quoted.

Also on HuffPost:

America's 'Working Poor'
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