The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans define ‘rich’ as anyone who makes more money than they do

A majority of Americans -- 54 percent, according to a Pew Research Center poll last year -- favor raising taxes on the wealthy to expand programs for the poor. The problem with this, from a policy standpoint, is that nearly everybody thinks "rich people" are people who make more money than they do -- no matter how much money they actually make.

Here are some numbers illustrating that point. Between 2008 and 2014, the percentage of Americans who defined themselves as "upper class" hovered between 1 and 2 percent. Over the same period the share who called themselves "middle class" fell from 53 to 44 percent, while the share calling themselves "lower class" doubled from 6 to 12 percent. What we're seeing here are the recession's effects in action, as households felt the pinch of falling wages and disappearing jobs.

If you ask people who is "rich," you get different answers depending on how much money the respondents make. According to a 2013 Washington Post survey, people who live in households making less than $50,000 say that an income of $200,000 would make you rich, while people with incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 say you'd need $260,000 to be rich. And people making over $100,000 say they wouldn't feel rich unless they were making a cool half a million dollars a year -- or more.

But none of this answers the burning question -- what is "rich," really? The Pew Research Center has some answers. Last year, they set out to define the boundaries of lower, middle and upper income households. They settled on the following definition: lower income homes make less than two thirds of the median, middle income homes make between two thirds and twice the median, and upper income families make more than twice the median.

These numbers differ depending on your household size. So for instance, a single person would need an annual salary of $66,000 to be considered "upper-income." For a married couple the upper-income threshold turns out to be $93,000, while a family of four needs to make $132,000 to be considered upper-crust.

Conversely, the low-income threshold would be $22,000 for a single person, $31,100 for a married couple, and $44,000 for a family of four.  Overall, one third of households fall into the lower income category, 46 percent are middle income, and 21 percent are upper income.

This should give you a sense of where you fall according to your peers nationally. But like politics, all income is local. Try asking your single friends living in the District if a $66,000 salary would make them feel upper class. In say, Peoria, that same salary would go a lot further.

Which brings us back to the question of taxation. Our tax policy sets income thresholds not locally, but at the national level. If you're a single person and you make $37,451 then you've hit the 25% tax bracket regardless of whether you live in D.C. or Des Moines. A smarter policy might figure out a way to levy income taxes based on the cost of living in your area. But such a policy would be tricky to implement properly.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.