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What it takes to be middle class in America’s largest cities

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What it takes to be middle class in America’s largest cities

Aerial view of a small town.

The middle class has long been considered the backbone of the American economy. But the American middle class is shrinking. The percentage of adults living in middle-income households in the United States fell by more than 10 percentage points over the last 50 years, according to the Pew Research Center, indicating an ongoing shrinkage of the middle class.

To find the true pulse of today’s middle class, SmartAsset examined U.S. Census Bureau data to calculate the bounds on middle class earnings in 100 of the largest U.S. cities, as well as all 50 states.

Key Findings

  • Northeastern salaries are about 20% higher than Southern salaries — even after accounting for cost of living differences. The Northeast dominates the top 10 highest middle class salary ranges, with many middle class salaries between $60,000 to $170,000. Meanwhile, that same middle class bracket falls between about $35,000 to $100,000 in many Southern states. While the top-placing Northeastern states cost roughly 50% more to live in than the low-ranking Southern states, the middle class salary range sits about 70% higher, according to the Council for Community and Economics Research.
  • The middle class in NYC aren’t making enough to keep up with the cost of living. While other notoriously pricey cities like San Francisco and Seattle have a middle class income that trends closely with the general cost of living, New York City wages lag behind. While the middle class wage range was middle of the road of all cities examined, the cost of living in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan are 43%, 70% and 138% higher than the national average, respectively.
  • Middle class status is hardest to attain in tech cities. Three out of the top five cities with the highest income thresholds for the middle class are located in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. These middle income residents need to make at least $81,623 in San Francisco, $84,673 in San Jose and $104,499 in Fremont. Seattle residents similarly need to make at least $74,223.
  • You’re middle class even if you make $310,000 in this California city. Households that earn up to $311,936 per year in Fremont, California, are still technically considered middle class. That’s the highest ceiling for any city in the study – Fremont’s median household income ($155,968) is almost $30,000 more than the next highest city.


Cities with the highest middle-class ceilings

Table showing highest middle-class salary ranges in the US.

1. Fremont, CA

Fremont has the highest minimum threshold for middle class at $104,499, going all the way up to nearly $312,000. Households here need a minimum income of $104,499 to be considered middle class. Fremont’s proximity to the high-paying jobs of Silicon Valley contributes to its high median income of $155,968. This Bay Area city has nearly 230,000 residents, and almost one-tenth of that population works at Tesla, according to city government data.

2. San Jose, CA

San Jose is the third-largest city in California and home to high-profile technology companies, including Adobe, Cisco Systems, eBay, PayPal and Zoom. Middle class households here earn between $84,673 and $252,754.

3. Arlington, VA

Arlington, situated on the banks of the Potomac River, benefits from its proximity to Washington D.C. and a highly-educated workforce. Over 76% of residents 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, more than double the national average, according to Census Bureau data. The federal government is Arlington’s top employer, according to city data, with the Department of Defense and a number of other agencies based there. Middle class households here earn up to $251,302 per year, while those earning less than $84,186 miss the threshold.

4. San Francisco, CA

While some large tech companies are based in San Francisco, including Salesforce, Uber and Twitter, the city is also home to non-tech brands like Wells Fargo and The Gap. Middle class households here earn between $81,623 and $243,652. But buying a home in the City by the Bay can be a challenge. The median home value in Frisco is $1.2 million, according to Zillow.

5. Seattle, WA

In Seattle, households earning up to $221,562 are still considered to be middle class. Those earning less than $74,223, however, haven’t yet entered this middle income group. Nearly 66% of residents 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher and there are plenty of high-profile local companies to work for, including Amazon, Starbucks and Boeing.

6. Irvine, CA

While the healthcare and technology industries contribute to Irvine’s economy, the city reports that the University of California, Irvine remains the city’s largest employer with over 25,000 faculty and staff. Middle class households in this Orange County city earn between $70,869 and $211,548 annually.

7. Gilbert, AZ

Located in the Phoenix metropolitan area, Gilbert’s population has grown 31% from 208,000 residents in 2010 to 273,000 in 2022, Census Bureau data show. The median household income of $104,802 sits comfortably in the middle class range of $70,217 and $209,604 per year.

8. Scottsdale, AZ

Scottsdale is a popular tourist destination with numerous resorts, spas and golf courses. Located about 30 minutes north of Gilbert, this city reports also being home to healthcare and technology companies. Middle class families here make between $66,395 and $198,194.

9. Plano, TX

Located in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Plano is home to 287,000 residents. The local economy is partially supported by the presence of some of the biggest names in banking. JP Morgan Chase, Capital One and Bank of America are the three largest employers in Plano, with a combined total of almost 20,000 workers, according to city data. Middle-class families here earn between $63,651 and $190,004. Plano has the lowest average home value of the top 10, at an average $487,000.

10. Chandler, AZ

Chandler is the third Phoenix area city in the top 10. The city reports its largest employers include Intel, Wells Fargo and the local school district. Middle class households here earn between $63,391 and $189,226 per year, while the average home value in Chandler sits just above Plano’s at $492,000.


What it takes to be middle class in the 50 states

Map showing what it takes to be middle class in the US.

Maryland, Washington D.C. and Massachusetts have the three highest floors for the middle class at a statewide level. In all three places, it takes an annual income of more than $60,000 for households to be considered middle class. New Jersey ($59,828) and New Hampshire ($59,272) round out the top five.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mississippi is the state that requires the lowest annual income to be a part of the middle class ($32,640). The Magnolia State is followed by West Virginia ($34,336), Louisiana ($34,898), Arkansas ($35,194) and Alabama ($36,122).


Data and methodology

Dot chart showing cities with the lowest income limits for the middle class.

To determine the income limits to be in the middle class, SmartAsset analyzed U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 1-year American Community Survey data for the median household income in all 50 states, as well as the 100 largest U.S. cities. The study relied on a variation of the Pew Research definition of middle-income households, which defines a middle class salary range by two-thirds to double the median U.S. salary. The analysis used the local median salary for states and large cities to account for the diversity of financial realities among locales.

This story originally appeared on SmartAsset and has been independently reviewed to meet journalistic standards.

Article Topic Follows: Life

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