The Places Where the Middle Class Lives

Jacksonville, North Carolina has a large middle-class population, thanks in part to the large number of military personnel who live there.

Jacksonville, North Carolina has a large middle-class population, thanks in part to the large number of military personnel who live there. Shutterstock


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New analysis from the Brookings Institution indicates that smaller metro areas have larger middle-class populations.

Small and mid-sized metro areas have the largest middle-class populations, according to new research from the Brookings Institution.

The analysis, titled “Where does the American middle class live?”, examines the presence of the middle class in 382 metro areas across the country. It defines the middle class as “occupying the middle three quintiles of the national income distribution,” which in 2017 meant a household income between $25,000 and $120,000. (Those national thresholds were then adjusted to account for regional price parities and average household size, which influences the resources available per person.)

Based on those metrics, Brookings senior fellow Alan Berube found the middle class is largest in Jacksonville, North Carolina, making up 73.7 percent of households. Homosassa Springs, Florida is second (70.8 percent), followed by Coeur d’Alene, Idaho (70.4), Odessa, Texas and East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania (both 70.3). Bloomington, Illinois comes in last of the 382 metro areas surveyed, with 51.2 percent of the population comprised of middle-class households.

Courtesy Brookings Institution

Many metro areas with large populations of middle-class residents fall into one of what Brookings categorizes as the “three M’s”—manufacturing centers, military towns and Mormon communities. Elkhart, Indiana and Sheboygan, Wisconsin, for example, have “significant numbers of middle-paying jobs” in the manufacturing sector, while Jacksonville, North Carolina has a large population of “uniformed service members and contractors who predominantly earn middle incomes.” In Utah's Mormon communities, including Logan, Ogden and Provo, residents “tend to have good-paying jobs and larger family sizes that place most of their households in the middle class.”

Generally, prominent industries in a given metro area have a strong effect on the size of its middle class, the report says.

“Metro areas where a larger share of the population works in retail, construction, administrative services, agriculture, manufacturing and transportation have larger middle classes on average,” Berube writes. “These industries tend to provide decent-paying jobs for individuals who may not possess a four-year college degree and who represent the bulk of the workforce in most metro areas.”

By contrast, areas with high numbers of people working in “professional services, information, finance and management industries” have smaller middle classes and larger high-income populations.

To that end, metro areas with the smallest middle classes include college towns—such as Ames, Iowa; Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and Santa Cruz, California—where large, temporary populations of lower-income students and permanent populations of highly paid faculty “leave relatively few earners in the middle.” Tech capitals—San Francisco, Boston and Boulder, Colorado—also have larger high-income populations, leaving less room for middle-class earners.

Region is also important, the analysis notes. Eleven of the 15 metro areas with the largest middle classes are located in Southern and Western states, where metro areas tend to be newer and more suburban.

Courtesy Brookings Institution

An area’s demographics also have an effect on middle class size, according to the research. “Metro areas in which non-Hispanic whites account for a larger share of population tend to have larger middle classes,” while metro areas with larger black populations have smaller middle classes. Metro areas with large Asian populations, most of them in California, also have smaller middle classes, but larger shares of high-income households.

“These patterns make sense given the strong, long-standing relationship between race and income in America,” the analysis notes.

Because the size of the middle class varies from place to place across the country, national policies aimed at improving life for that population segment will impact different metropolitan areas in different ways.

“Researchers and policymakers should more deeply examine middle-class conditions at the local level to truly understand and improve middle-class resilience,” Berube concludes.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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