Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about middle class America. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Despite our culturally determined hesitation to assign ourselves social and economic positions, strong feelings have always been attached to the American middle class. This explains why there is so much concern for its fate.

Because the United States was founded on the principles of democracy and equality, it makes perfect sense that “average” Americans are viewed as most symbolic of what makes this country great and different from others. The illusion that most Americans belong to the middle class reflects our national mythology of the “Everyman,” an idea that is central to our national identity.

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Indeed, those citizens who have not been middle class have consistently been viewed with some suspicion, considered somehow less “American.” Both the poor and the rich contradict the constitutional precept that “all men are created equal”; that there are major class distinctions at all is often seen as a violation of our national creed.

The reality, of course, is that there has always been vast inequality in wealth and social status in the United States, but the endurance of the equality mythology illustrates its profound power. Any and all threats to the middle class, real or perceived, have therefore been seen as attacks on America itself.

Despite all this, actually defining the American middle class is difficult, if not impossible. The many attempts to characterize the middle class have been worth the effort, however, because of the significance of the term to the American idea and experience.

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With social status such a slippery slope, I believe that some dimension of one’s economic status is the best way to objectively define who is and who isn’t middle class. Income is not a very good measure, however, as a wealthy person could have no or low annual income, and a person deep in debt could have a very high annual income. I contend that one’s net worth is the best measure of one’s class, making the nation’s middle class those Americans whose assets fall within the middle third of net worth. Precisely one-third of all Americans (or households, more accurately) are thus middle class, far fewer than politicians might have you believe.

But over the years, many other definitions have been assigned to the American middle class, illustrating the concept’s vagueness and the permeability of its boundaries. “It suggests earning enough to get by without struggling; being able to afford health care, college costs and the occasional trip to Disney World,” suggested writer Brita Belli in 2007, taking a classic income-based approach. Job-based criteria have also been used: The middle class was “a body of wage earners who are able to find meaningful work and receive meaningful compensation to care for their families’ physical and medical needs,” suggested economist Frederick R. Strobel in 1993,” implying that belonging to the group involved more than just making or having a specified amount of money.

Much more subjective criteria can and has often been used to define the American middle class, however. Economist Frank Levy wrote that being middle class relied upon “an emphasis on formal education, a preference for reasoning over physical violence, (and) an expectation of a stable career with a period of retirement,” — a values-based model. Historian Marina Moskowitz has proposed that the middle class can be conceived as “a national community with a shared standard of living,” an interesting, consumer-oriented view.

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Even the U.S. Commerce Department — an organization intimately familiar with facts and statistics — concluded after conducting a study in 2008 that being middle class “is as much a state of mind and aspirations as it is a set of income levels.” The department found that owning a car, having a retirement nest egg and being able to take a family vacation were other common criteria among middle-class Americans, as good a subjective definition as any.

A good argument could be made that there is no bigger story in American history than that of the rise (and, arguably, the fall) of the middle class, reason enough for politicians left and right to have consistently tapped into the term’s power. “America’s spirit and tone, its historical mythology and official aspirations, political bent, educational arrangements, the centrality of business enterprise, as well as the dreams of the vast majority of its people, derive from the psychology of the great imperial middle,” proposed historian Loren Baritz in his “The Good Life: The Meaning of Success for the American Middle Class.

Still, the difficulty of defining it reflects Americans’ discomfort with the idea of class in general. Despite obvious, huge disparities in wealth and other indicators, many still believe that we are basically a “classless” society, the first in the history of the world. One has to then wonder, then, why so many Americans were and are obsessed with “moving up” or “getting ahead,” ready to abandon the great “imperial middle” for something even better.

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