Both Romney and Obama Are Wrong about Who Is "Middle Class"

If Mitt Romney began this week with a misstep over foreign policy—accusing President Barack Obama of “sympathizing” with the people who attacked the American embassy in Cairo—then he has ended it with a misstep over class. In an interview with Good Morning America’s George Stephanopoulos, he said that “middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less.” Here’s the full context:

“I said that there are five different studies that point out that we can get to a balanced budget without raising taxes on middle income people,” he continued. “Let me tell you, George, the fundamentals of my tax policy are these. Number one, reduce tax burdens on middle-income people. So no one can say my plan is going to raise taxes on middle-income people, because principle number one is keep the burden down on middle-income taxpayers.”

Pundits and partisans have jumped on this quote because it fits perfectly into two narratives of the Republican presidential nominee. First, that he’s an aloof plutocrat, and second, that he is a bumbling, incompetent politician. But in fairness to Romney, his definition of middle-class is identical the one used by most Democrats, including President Obama. For the last two years, Democrats have defended “middle class” tax cuts that apply to all income under $250,000. Obama touts them in his stump speech—“I’ve cut taxes for folks who need it—middle-class families, small business owners”—and congressional Democrats fought to preserve them in the 111th Congress.

When it comes to who qualifies as middle-class, Obama and Romney are on the same page. The difference comes in the fact that the tax cuts also extend to income over $250,000. Obama wants to end that extension, while Romney wants to preserve it (in addition to new, across-the-board tax cuts).

Of course, it makes sense that politicians would see “middle class” as extending to people who make “$200,000 to $250,000.” Lawmakers are far wealthier than the people they represent. The typical Democrat in Congress has a net worth of $878,500. The typical Republican? $957,500. Averaged, that’s more than nine times the net worth of most Americans.

In the real world—where only 9.1 percent of households make more than $150,000, and median income for all Americans is $50,054—“$200,000 to $250,000” places you at the top of the pyramid. That our politicians believe otherwise is a sign of their isolation from everyone but the well-off.