For that matter, no experts seem to have ever agreed upon a definition of what "rich" is, either. It's been counted as a family income of about $40,000 or $50,000 or $100,000 or even much more. It has also been measured by accrued wealth rather than annual income.
Interestingly, the only definition where there is any agreement at all concerns poor people. There is an "official" poverty line and the Census Bureau each year duly records how many Americans are poor, after adjusting for inflation. The current level for a family of four is $11,000 per year ($10,989 to be precise). Below that, and you are officially poor. That figure includes only cash income.
Moreover, for the past seven years, the Census Bureau also has developed nine different statistical series that measure "non-cash" income for poor people. These non-cash items include things of true value like food stamps, rent supplements, Medicaid and Medicare. Remarkably, the non-cash disbursements involve about two-thirds of all government help to poor people!
What does all this have to do with the middle class that is allegedly vanishing, shrinking, disappearing, squeezed or stagnating?
This: Within the last month, the Census Bureau has issued two poverty reports. One measured how many people fell below the cash-only poverty threshold. The second measured how many people are below the poverty threshold if you count in the value of the non-cash items.
The verdict of the two poverty reports are clear and consistent: In the two years since the end of the big double-dip recession and the fall of unemployment rates in 1983, poverty has come down.
Measured at the official level, the drop has been from 15.3 percent in 1983 to 14 percent in 1985. When the non-cash items are counted in, there has been a similar sort of drop in all nine ways of measuring it. Of the nine choices, the one I think makes the most sense shows a two-year drop from 10.6 percent to 9.3 percent.
Question: If there are fewer people in poverty, what does that tell us about the idea that the middle class is vanishing, shrinking or disappearing?
Answer: If it's happening, it's good! Why?
Well, if there are fewer people in poverty, where could they have gone? Only up.
Most likely, they made their way into the lower rungs of the middle class. And if the middle class is statistically shrinking (as is maintained), where could they possibly have gone? Only up - to the upper class.
That's good - not bad.
In fact, there used to be a much-used phrase to describe this process: ''upward mobility." It defined American life. It's a phrase we should start using again. It's still what's happening.