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As we head towards another round of debate on the trade-offs between tax increases  and spending cuts, a key battle will be fought over the definition of middle class.  How we frame the issue of a fair shared burden will shape the ultimate outcome.  Conservatives are aware of this: a cartoon graphic in last month's Wall Street Journal argued that "many other families, affluent and poor, will pay more as well" under tax changes and illustrated this by showed four American families, with annual earnings between $180,000 and $650,000.

I propose we draw a line marking the boundary of middle class at $113,700. That's a reasonable number set at more than double median income in 2011 (Census 2012 Report) and roughly in the top 10-15% of income earners (link)

But the reason for that precise number is as follows:

When you have wages or self-employment income covered by Social Security, you pay Social Security taxes each year up to a maximum amount set by law. For 2013, you will pay Social Security taxes on income below $113,700.

Read more after the squiggle

As it is structured in 2013, social security is one of the most regressive taxes in the United States, with everyone earning more than $113,700 paying a lower rate than the rest of the population.  According to p.4 of this Congressional Research Service Report, where social security taxes once applied to 90% of income, growing wealth imbalance has resulted in only 83% of income being subject to social security taxes.  

Our era is different from most of the past 4 generations in that those who have income above any reasonable definition of affluence continue to see themselves as solidly middle class.  A successful framing device will drive what arguments must be weighed and compared, and will force internal contradictions into the open.  What if we were to take the $113,700 and use it to draw a line in the sand.  Above that limit of income you are no longer middle class. And if you argue that $250,000 ought to be the boundary for what is considered middle class, then why not increase the social security income cap to $250,000? And if that anchors the boundary back down at $113,700, then increased income tax rates on those wealthier than the middle class should be under consideration.

PS: I am aware of regional differences.  I live in Southern California, and am fortunate enough so that I would personally pay more taxes if the cap on income for purposes of social security taxes were raised.  But I still think that it is the right thing to do.

Originally posted to Greg306 on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 03:27 PM PST.

Also republished by Social Security Defenders.


Where would you set the upper income limit for "middle class"?

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Comment Preferences

  •  The problem with this kind of thing (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Argyrios, Cameron Hoppe, denise b

    (and I understand that this diary itself may be probably a bit tongue in cheek already)

    The problem with this sort of thing is that it conflates income earned with disposable income. For instance, I don't see how someone making $75,000 a year could not consider themselves wealthy. But, if that person had a lot of fixed costs (young or old dependents to take care of, high rent/transportation costs, huge student loan payments), then that person probably has a middle-class lifestyle.

    •  You cannot buy a single family home on that here (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Redfire, misslegalbeagle, Argyrios

      I'm in NOVA and unless you go waaaaay out 2 hours out from DC you can't afford to buy a single family home on $75,000, heck it'd be a stretch to afford a townhouse too.

      •  Most people don't aspire to own a home anymore (0+ / 0-)

        I'm basing that number ($75,000) off of a single person with no dependents and no loan payments renting a place in say, New York City. That person would definitely be wealthy.

        If you're making $75,000 and your only fixed payments (things like student loans and dependent care costs) are for housing/transportation, then you're a wealthy person, no matter where you live in America.

        •  Uh I still disagree (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          misslegalbeagle, Whatithink, Argyrios

          Do you know what it cost to rent a tiny apartment in NYC? I do believe you'd struggle to find something to rent that wasn't run by a slumlord.

        •  For most people, you're not going to be (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Roger Fox

          making $75k/year if you're not also making loan payments.  

        •  Battery Park NYC-1bdrm 3k-4k (0+ / 0-)

          36k to 48k per year.

          75k per year gross, puts you in the 25% bracket, after income taxes you have 56k, for you to pay state and city taxes, food electricity, gas, rent.

          Rent =48k
          Utilities-$100 per month-5k yr
          Food- $100 month-5k yr

          I think you better find someplace else to live.

          FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

          by Roger Fox on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 06:45:39 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  You must have no idea (0+ / 0-)

          what real wealth is if you think $75k is wealthy.

          There are people who get millions of dollars a year in income from their Treasury bonds. They have apartments on 5th Ave. and beachfront houses in the Hamptons and ski lodges in Aspen. They have servants, yachts, airplanes, jewels, Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces. They buy $20k sofas and $10k articles of clothing. They have famous painters' work hanging on their walls.

          Are you seriously going to lump someone making $75k from a job with these people?

          I made more than that a few years ago. I lived in a small 100-year old fixer-upper house that sucked up money like a vacuum cleaner but never got fixed up - I couldn't even keep it painted. I drove a 12-year car that cost $15k when new and had almost entirely thrift store furniture. I had a very unimpressive wardrobe. Almost all my vacations were spent visiting family. Rich? - you've got to be kidding.

          Where did my money go? Well, I put away as much as I could for retirement, which was looming and for which I was unprepared - and a good thing, too, because I got sick and lost my job and haven't worked since. A lot of it went to psychotherapy and other medical expenses. My house, despite being pretty much of a dump, was in San Francisco and therefore cost a lot. I went out to lunch most days. I bought books and CDs and went to the movies whenever I felt like it. I was comfortable and wanted for nothing, but having enough money to eat lunch out and go to the movies hardly takes one out of the middle class.

          Plus, it only lasted a few years and will never happen again. Rich people don't have to worry about losing their jobs.

          We decided to move the center farther to the right by starting the whole debate from a far-right position to begin with. - Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay

          by denise b on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 09:46:12 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  my grandfather used to say it is not how much you (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cameron Hoppe

      make, it is how much you keep.  Average 401K for 55-65 cohort is around $130,000 with home equity not worth a whole lot these days.

      Question now is what is the average net worth of someone in the middle class?  Average net worth for the country is $78,000 I believe, mostly from home equity.  

      I suppose the bright spot was the neighbor who observed he had been poor all his life but if his other neighbors continued their financial slides, he could soon be wealthy, without having to change any of his personal details  

      •  I am middle aged, lost all my home equity in the (0+ / 0-)

        Housing crash. Bought our home 10 years ago with 22% down. We did everything "right" and still have lost out. Husbband had tobretire due to his age and health issues. Our property taxes are still as high as before the crash. House is under water but taxes are same level as a $325,000 way back when. Tell me that is right.

        Republicans only care about themselves, their money, & their power.

        by jdmorg on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 05:43:10 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  We have a major problem in the country, the (0+ / 0-)

          corporations and the truly wealthy have all the money and we pay all the taxes.  We need transaction taxes for Wall Street and decent corporate taxes to suck out all the cash they are not using.

          •  2 ways (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            The 1986 tax reform act removed most deductions and shelters. in 1980 the top income rate was 70%, but the effective rate was 23%.

            Today the top rate is 35% and the effective rate is about 20%.

            The difference is in the amount of tax breaks the uber rich got, that kept dollars invested in America.

            All those incentives for domestic investment are gone.

            SO we can go back to 70% but we need the deductions and shelters too......or we can add 6 more brackets like this

            40% 2mil
            41% 4mill
            42% 6mill
            43% 12mill
            44% 24mill
            45% 48mill

            And do without incentives to invest in America.

            FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

            by Roger Fox on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 06:32:09 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  We don't need Americans to invest in America (0+ / 0-)

              we need Americans to pay taxes so we can build infrastructure, great schools and a strong social safety net.  Everyone else invests in America because it is a good place to invest and we do not have to bribe them to do it.

              •  One of the tenants of New Deal tax policy (0+ / 0-)

                The EU does it, China does it.

                You equate paying taxes so we can build infrastructure, thats not very Keynesian. In fact its wrong, paying taxes specifically an income tax system that uses a geometric progression, progressive taxation, is essential in preventing large wage and income disparity. It prevents wealth concentration in the very few.

                Keynesian economics tells us to run deficits to pay for infrastructure, New Deal tax policy incentivized domestic investment, specifically stable long term shelters, an essential component of the post WW2 economy/boom that lasted until the Reagan era.

                Everyone else invests in America because it is a good place to invest and we do not have to bribe them to do it.
                That might have been true in the 50's and 60's, but since the mid 70's the US has been running annual trade deficits. While jobs have been outsourced.

                FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

                by Roger Fox on Sun Feb 10, 2013 at 05:55:15 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  You make a good point, I guess we are bribing (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  Roger Fox

                  them, they invest our money by way of the trade deficit.  Keynesian economics doesn't say you always run deficits, it says you run deficits during economic downturns which unfortunately we have had a plethora of since Reagan.  Conservatives are shitty managers of the economy and banking system.

                  •  Heres the jobs deficit-22-28 million jobs (0+ / 0-)

                    Infrastructure has a multiplier of between 2 and 2.5. Good  paying manufacturing jobs a bit less 1.8 to 2.3.

                    We used to spend 5-6% of GDP on infrastructure, today thats 750 to 900 billion, thats 15 million to 22.5 million jobs. In 2011 we spent 1.3%, just less than 200 billion or 4 to 5 million jobs.

                    Roughly a net of 18 million jobs.

                    WE used to use tax policy to incentivize domestic investment. I have never found solid numbers on this, but guessing, from 1.5% to 3.5% of GDP, call it 2.5%. Thats 375 billion or about 4 million jobs.

                    Now, since Reagan every recession has a jobless recovery... DOH !......1990, 2000 & the current great recession.

                    SO these old policies today would create about 22 million jobs. Assuming 28 million would take a full time year round job- and we create 22 million jobs, that leaves about 6 million people without jobs, about 4% unemployment @ a civilian workforce fo 154 million.

                    My point being these New Deal policies match the current jobs deficit............ funny dat.....

                    Keynesian economics doesn't say you always run deficits, it says you run deficits during economic downturns
                    I misstated that. In economic downturns you deficit spend to stimulate. Right.

                    FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

                    by Roger Fox on Mon Feb 11, 2013 at 08:58:48 AM PST

                    [ Parent ]

            •  Would 95% be too much for these hounds... (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              According to the capitalist bible, Forbes:

              "By sitting on their growing investments, the richest five Americans made almost $7 billion each in one year. That's $3,500,000.00 per hour."

              That's more in one hour than most two income households will earn in eighty hours of work, working every week for forty years.
              Or, more in ONE SECOND ($58,000) than the average worker ($13/hr) makes in two years.  That's $58K EVERY second!

              An Eisenhower tax of 95% on 7 billion dollars a year would only leave them w/$350 million per year, or just barely enough to buy twenty senators, fifty congresscritters and twenty state legislatures and two floors in the Dakota apartment building in Manhattan.

              "If you want to make G-D smile, tell him your plans." Vin Scully

              by BrianParker14 on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 08:30:42 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

        •  my sympathy; I am in the process of paying (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          down $1M in medical debt.  The floor on medical expenses is ridiculous as most people never spend enough in a year to crack that floor

  •  I am not sure what the right amount is for (5+ / 0-)

    the high end of "middle class", but I do know what rich is. Rich people don't fly in commercial airlines, they travel in airplanes they own, lease or rent. So if you want to know if someone is really rich this is the test. Do they fly commercial? If they do, they aren't rich.

    "let's talk about that"

    by VClib on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 03:48:02 PM PST

    •  Can Educate Their Kids Without Loans? Do They (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      phonegery, debedb, DrPlacebo, wu ming

      have no trouble getting health insurance? Are they likely to leave an inheritance for their children? Can they belong to a yacht or country club.

      Those are middle class probabilities from the late 60's that now are likely beyond most in the middle class unless they live a fairly austere life.

      They don't define rich, but I'm pretty sure they now define the beginning of the well off.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 04:09:28 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Some of them are easier than others. (0+ / 0-)

        If ALL of those answers are yes, then that's likely upper class today. But there are people who are clearly middle class who can say yes to the questions about health insurance and leaving an inheritance. (A modest inheritance, even if too small to make a difference in your kids' standard of living, is still an inheritance. I've seen many estates in the 4- or low 5-figure range left by people who didn't make a whole lot of money.)

    •  That would be really, really rich, people ... (0+ / 0-)

      I think.

      I really must find a good sig line!

      by Rileycat on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 04:10:59 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I don't think this is correct. (0+ / 0-)

      I know many uber-wealthy who fly commercial airlines--just business or first class.

      There are moments when the body is as numinous as words, days that are the good flesh continuing. -- Robert Hass

      by srkp23 on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 05:18:50 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I'd modify that. (0+ / 0-)

      If you fly first class or business class, you're also pretty rich.

  •  Cartoon pathos (0+ / 0-)

    Boy, those are some pretty sad looking faces in that WSJ graphic you cited. They remind me of some pictures I once saw, taken during the Great Depression.  It just goes to show you what a hardscrabble life it is trying to get by on a six-figure income.

  •  You are confusing things. (5+ / 0-)

    First, you talk about the "top 10%" of income being around $113,000, then you talk about Social Security taxes up to $113,000.  

    $113,000 in HOUSEHOLD income puts you in the top 10%.  That's often 2 earners.  A married couple in their 50's, each making $60,000 or so.  Maybe middle-aged teacher married to a police officer.  Maybe a government accountant married to a  nurse.  They are well-paid, certainly. But "rich"?  I hardly think you want to start labeling them as "the rich" like they were some evil hedge fund manager.    

    Contrast with SS where you pay SS on up to $113,000 individual wages.  So, a two income couple in their 50's, each making $70,000, is well within the top 10%, but each pays SS on every dime of wages, even though their combined wages are above $113,000.

    And Social Security is not a "tax," and is not MEANT to be progressive.  It is wage insurance -- where your retirement benefits are based on the amount of wages you insure.  If you insure $50,000 in wages, you get the same retirement benefit as everyone else who insured $50,000 in wages, regardless of whether that's all they have or they inherited $10 million.  FDR designed it that way so it couldn't be called "welfare" and couldn't be easily killed off.  It's this structure, designed by FDR, that lets supporters of SS say it's a "you get what you pay for" system and not welfare -- that lets supporters say they "earned" their benefits by paying for them.  

    •  to be sure I have this straight, you believe (0+ / 0-)

      insurance benefits cannot be earned, even if they are purchased by income that is earned by a person?

      That is the nature of insurance: if I buy a $200,000 policy and die tomorrow, then I win.  The worker who is single and drops dead tomorrow at 64 loses because he never collects a dime.  Insurance does have a lottery like component built into it so does this mean such income is never earned?  This would mean interest and dividends from stocks and bonds are not earned or that, if I self finance a real estate deal, the proceeds are not earned.

      The problem with this view is that only wages would be earned and all other forms of income would be unearned

      •  No, what I said (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Roger Fox, Whatithink, Argyrios, VClib

        is that SS is "earned" BECAUSE it is insurance -- FDR designed it that way.  If you just may "rich" people pay more (i.e., insure more income) without also increasing the retirement benefits proportionately (so the payout remains linked to what you pay in) you change the fundamental nature of the program FDR designed.

        The IRS differentiates between "earned" and "unearned" income.  You can only "insure" earned income through SS because it is presumed that earned income will stop when you get older (and retire).  Unearned income doesn't necessarily stop when you retire.  You can still get interest income, dividends, capital gains, etc., after you retire.  So, the Social Security program doesn't provide a way to insure against the loss of that income, like it provides insurance against the loss of wage income (when you retire).  

        •  however to use the IRS definition of unearned (0+ / 0-)

          really begs the question doesn't it?  For the IRS, unearned income really means a different scale and no FICA contribution with deductions for capital gains.

          Therefore, I follow the biblical injunction of investing my talent (cash) into a business, any income from that business that is not salary is considered to be unearned.  However most business owners would argue with you any compensation they receive is "earned" even if it is "unearned"

      •  Not reading well today? (0+ / 0-)

        FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

        by Roger Fox on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 06:23:16 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  entlord - SocSec is wage insurance (0+ / 0-)

        for that period of your life when you are over 66 and no longer receiving wages or salary. If you die before you start collecting there may be some benefits to other family members, but there is no payoff like private insurance. This was one of the key points that GWB made when he tried to discuss partial privatization of future contributions on a voluntary basis. A portion of your SocSec account would be an owned asset and would be part of your estate when you died.

        "let's talk about that"

        by VClib on Sun Feb 10, 2013 at 02:22:52 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  113k is the 84th percentile (0+ / 0-)

      215k is about the 90th.

      FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

      by Roger Fox on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 06:52:05 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Absolutely. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Which families fall into the middle class needs to be tied to the upper barrier of the amount of income that is taxed for Social Security.

    Realistically, today's middle class extends far past the $113k limit, and people with higher incomes than that can reasonably expect to benefit from the program during their lifetimes.

    And if politicians want to play with words and say that making $600,000 a year makes you a member of the middle class, then I expect those politicians to support hiking the taxable income to that point, as well.

  •  84th percentile (0+ / 0-)

    FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

    by Roger Fox on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 06:10:49 PM PST

  •  Ah no (0+ / 0-)
    only 83% of income being subject to social security taxes.
    In 2010  83% of people earned less than the SS income cap.

    Today its 84%.

    FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

    by Roger Fox on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 06:15:06 PM PST

  •  SS is wage insurance (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    social security is one of the most regressive taxes in the United States
    You buy insurance.

    If FICA was a tax, a progressive tax, it would have brackets, there would be a geometric progression to those brackets.

    In order that SS be deemed Constitutional (remember SS was challenged in SCOTUS), the insurance payments were formulated as a tax.

    But go ahead and frame it as a tax. A Regressive tax, even though you might be getting the EITC.

    FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

    by Roger Fox on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 06:21:12 PM PST

  •  HUGE differences depending on where you live (0+ / 0-)

    A hundred thousand a year is 'wealthy' in places where you can buy a house for less than that.  

    In other locales you're just approaching 'middle class'.

    My house in NYC burbs  cost 6 times what my brother in NC paid.  My property taxes are literally 15 times what he pays.  State income taxes are another big difference.

    My brother had a far better lifestyle making $50,000 a year than we did at more than double that.

    Median income in the town my brother lives in is $27,900
    Median value of 'owner occupied housing units' is $96,700

    Median income in the town we live in  is over $163,000
    Median value of 'owner occupied housing units' is $741,000

    census numbers for 2007-11

    and no 'move' comments, please

    We live where the jobs for us are.   They pay more than somewhere in the boonies because costs are far more here - assuming you can even get a job in the boonies (which for many places, you cannot)   I recall being in Utah where our waitress was the county Treasurer,  She and her husband had a small ranch but he also worked at a feed store and was int he Army reserves - and between all that they were lucky to net maybe $30,000 a year.

    Life isn't fair but you should try to leave it fairer than you found it.

    by xrepub on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 08:58:31 PM PST

  •  Interesting benchmark (0+ / 0-)

    The tax code phases out or eliminates many advantages intended to help the middle class save for retirement and educate themselves or children in the range 150,000-200,000.  Roth, tax deductible IRA, etc.

    As others note SS is an insurance program, and the ceilings are  based on individual earner income, but it makes a good benchmark.

    (I think SS contribution ceilings should be lifted, and SS contributions should be applied to un-earned  income as well)

    So the tax code already sets the level at which targeted tax advantages (and implies  a threshold for middle class eligibility for such advantages at somewhere between 130,000-200,000.

    Let's call it 175,000 of house hold income.   Above that ladder up increasing marginal tax rates

    oh yeah, and tax capital gains, dividend and interest income the same as earned income.  

  •  "Class" is a word meaning groups of things (0+ / 0-)

    that vary by having differing characteristcs.

    "Degree" is a word that can be used to measure varying amounts of one characteristic.

    How much money one makes is one characteristic.  Some people make more money, some make less...the amount varies in the degreeof how much money they make.

    Traditionally, the "Lower Class" roughly equates to "The Poor", and the "Upper Class" to the rich...but they vary in measures other than simply the amount of money that they make.  The rich and poor have been around for a long time; the Middle Class is a more recent development.  It, too, varies by measures different than simply the amount of money made.

    I think that a better, more meaningful measure, would be something more along these lines.  The poor make just enough money to ensure basic survival, or often less.  They often do not have a job, or what we would consider a steady job. They are dependent on someone else to provide income to them, usually in return for labor.

     The rich make money far above the basic survival level, and generally have enough excess that they make most, or all, of their money, through the investment of the money (capital).  They also often do not have a 'job'.  They don't depend on having a job.

    The middle class naturally falls in between.  They have a steady job, that provides more than they need to survive, own some property, have some more leisure time, and spare money with which to enjoy it.  But it's a tenous position.  If they lose their job, it's only a matter of time before they start running out of money, and find themselves slipping down a rung.  They are almost as dependent as the poor for some rich person or corporation to keep supplying them with income.

    Finding a monetary amount (a measurement of degree) really isn't very useful indefining a class.  The value of money changes.  The amount needed to both survive and have some stability changes.  The amount that one can bring in can quickly change.

    The $113,000 number can be useful for policy can the "poverty line".  Those numbers will change next year, though.  I agree with your choice of them for the purposes of this diary...its a logical dividing line for certain things.  I think it should be raised...(and I make more that that at my very high paying, but tenuous, job)...250,000 would alleviate many of the future concerns for Social Security.  Ultimately, I don't see a need for any limit.

    But please don't quibble over what amount (degree) of money puts one into a different "class".  I make good money today, but if I lost my job tomorrow, it would quickly be gone.  I work for a corporation, I make an hourly wage, I depend for retirement on a 401(k) over which I have little to no control.  Nobody works for me, no capital gains work for me...I'm in the same "class" as probably everyone else on this site.

    "We refuse to fight in a war started by men who refused to fight in a war." -freewayblogger

    by Bisbonian on Sun Feb 10, 2013 at 06:23:21 AM PST

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