What Is Middle Class? In New York, It's Hard to Identify

Middle class housing in New York City
Middle class housing in New York City

Debate rages in the U.S. over what is -- and who is -- "middle class" in America. What was once based on notions of median household income and a distinct working class -- with ideals of "the white picket fence" and the "American Dream" -- is becoming increasingly broad, arbitrary and complex as the gap widens between rich and poor and American communities change. This two-part series explores dramatically varied experiences of America's self-identified "middle class."

Part 1 focuses on New York City: the most expensive place to live in America. Its "middle class" is disproportionately skewed, compared to the rest of the country.

The Struggle to Define 'Middle Class'

Americans with incomes from $30,000 categorize themselves as middle class and a Pew Research Center survey showed that about half of Americans identify themselves as part of it. But an individual or family's location is "everything" in understanding what's middle class, says The Wall Street Journal. This is because the "middle" is generally defined by who's at the top and who's at the bottom -- markers that vary greatly from state to state, and even county to county. The median household income in Mississippi is $39,079, but in Maryland it's $67,469. This obviously affects what's "middle class" in either state. (County-to-county median incomes reveal even greater disparities.)

But New York, the most expensive place to live in America, has been under the microscope thanks to recent findings published in The New York Times. The newspaper determined that to be considered middle class in New York City, a person must earn between $45,000 and $134,000 per year. (Some NYC residents argued in the article that $250,000 still qualifies as upper middle class.) In other parts of the country, middle class means annual earnings between $33,000 and $100,000.

These figures are supported by the Center for an Urban Future, which found that a New Yorker would need to make $123,322 a year to have the same standard of living as someone making $50,000 in Houston. In Manhattan, the report claimed, earning $60,000 is equivalent to making $26,092 in Atlanta.

"Things are just different in Manhattan. The cost of living is so high," Manhattan homeowner and self-identified middle class resident Dan Nainan told AOL Real Estate. "You have to earn over $800,000 a year to be in the 1 percent in New York, and that's not the same for the rest of the country."

Dan Nainan
Dan Nainan

Nainan, 31 (pictured at left), owns a one-bedroom apartment in the affluent Chelsea neighborhood and earns $300,000 a year as a comedy show producer and professional comedian for corporate and VIP events (including those honoring New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and President Barack Obama). Nainan, who is single with no children, travels first-class regularly and admits to enjoying "discretionary purchases" such as computers, gadgets and musical instruments. He recognizes that, while he would easily be considered "wealthy" anywhere else in America, he's relegated to the middle class in New York City.

"After all, I'm living in a 750-square-foot apartment," explained Nainan. "If I were upper class, I imagine I would have a three-bedroom apartment -- but that is extremely and exorbitantly expensive here in New York." Nainan adds that apartment maintenance fees are also very high in New York City, and that food, clothing and some related travel expenses can easily eat away at savings.

His thoughts are echoed by Mikey Rox, owner of the public relations and marketing firm Paper Rox Scissors. Rox owns a two-bedroom, 900-square-foot pre-war condo in Manhattan with his husband, Earl. The couple's annual household income is $200,000 a year -- what might be considered "wealthy" in states like Arkansas and Tennessee -- but they, like Nainan, also consider themselves strictly middle class.

Mikey Rox and Earl
Mikey Rox and Earl

"$200,000 a year doesn't go as far as you think it might when you live in a city like New York. Everything is more expensive -- gas, food, entertainment -- all of it," Rox (pictured at right with Earl) told AOL Real Estate. Rox added that, like many Americans, most of the couple's money goes straight to paying off their mortgage. "Sure, I suppose I could move to a smaller town where I wouldn't need to work as hard to pay the bills, but I think that would make me even more unhappy."

Though statistically, both Rox and Nainan rise above the broad stretch that is Manhattan's "middle class" (the bottom rung of the group being $20,171 and the top rung being $171,942) Rox explains that -- like many members of the middle class across the country -- he would not consider himself wealthy until he had enough money in the bank to feel comfortable and not have to worry about how to pay bills. "It's all relative," said Rox.

Next: What Does the Middle Class Look Like in the Rest of the Country?

See also: Multigenerational Homes: Real Estate's Next Big Thing

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Save The Middle Class: Get Hitched!
Save The Middle Class: Get Hitched!