What's Middle Class in America?

Middle class housing in New York CityDebate 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."

While Part 1 looked at New York City, Part 2 focuses on the experiences of the middle class in Texas and Georgia.

The Faces of Middle Class in America

Though Mike Gnitecki rents a room in a two-story home in Longview, Texas, and admits to earning a "relatively low income" as a special education teacher -- $31,700 annually -- the 28-year-old considers himself to be middle class. (Though there is no official Census Bureau data on where the middle class begins and ends, many would argue that he just makes the cut: A number of Americans consider $30,000 the bottom rung of the middle class).

Mike GniteckiUnlike some New Yorkers who self-identity as middle class, Gnitecki (pictured at left) considers himself "financially satisfied, happy and content."

"I can easily survive and live a comfortable life," Gnitecki told AOL Real Estate. "The cost of living here in East Texas is very low, and a lot of us young single folks just rent rooms now."

Due to low overhead costs and a simple lifestyle -- Gnitecki's main expenditures are his vehicle and dining out -- he has been able to save $93,500. Gnitecki said that, in his view, class categorizations, particularly the idea of a "middle class," were general markers of an individual's lifestyle rather than economic descriptors. Although, he admitted that if he were earning $100,000 a year, he would consider himself wealthy.

Roughly 100 miles away, in Dallas, Darlene Greene earns $150,000 annually. Though Greene, 57, owns a four-bedroom ranch-style home with her fiance, Donald Barree, and runs both a successful sales business and nonprofit organization, she, too, considers herself middle class. Unlike Gnitecki, Greene sees middle class as denoting a certain level of financial stability -- or lack thereof.

Darlene Greene, Donald Barree"People look at us like we're rich because we have a nice house and nice cars, and are not behind in our mortgage, and are not having cars repossessed. But we are far from rich," said Greene (pictured at right with her fiance). Between her and her fiance, they have four children. "With all the places our money has to go, it makes it hard to keep things up and running. I am working harder than I did 10 years ago, but I net less profit because of the cost of living."

Greene says that she is blessed to own her own home and nice cars, have steady employment and the ability to afford a yearly vacation -- but also admits that, like many Americans in her income bracket, she would like to be making more.

Greene's thoughts are echoed by Lisa and Richard Barrett of Roswell, Ga., whose annual household income is $225,000. (Lisa works as a yoga teacher and her husband is the chief operations officer at Carson Industries.) Though $225,000 might seem colossal in comparison to Gnitecki's $31,700, Lisa admits that much of their money goes to the mortgage on their 6,000-square-foot home, taxes, car payments and utilities.

Lisa Barrett and sons"The middle class is not necessarily defined by specific income levels," Lisa (pictured at left with her two sons, Case and Carson) told AOL Real Estate. Like Darlene Greene, Lisa suggested that "middle class" had more to do with a level of financial stability. "That said, all our needs are met, my kids play sports and have after-school activities and don't really want for anything."

Although there might be general agreement that the term middle class is "practically useless" as an economic descriptor, the cases of Barrett and Greene support the argument that to afford a middle class lifestyle in 2013 -- what many would define as a house, a car, school tuition and a once-a-year vacation -- a household must make six figures. To simply stay afloat and raise a family in modern America these days, a "decent job" simply won't cut it and a middle class lifestyle is simply out of reach, many argue.

But according to Gnitecki, who considers himself financially stable and lucky, the very notion of a "middle class lifestyle" in America is arbitrary and fluid. "I get to travel every other summer and over the winter holidays as a teacher," Gnitecki explained. "I went with friends on a ski trip, I went to New York for a week. I eat out and live very comfortably. It all depends on where you live, and how you choose to live, and your outlook."

Previous: What Does the Middle Class Look Like in New York?

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

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