"Middle class" has no formal definition, but it's fair to say politicians know a key voting bloc when they see one.
Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican rival Rep. Paul Ryan used the term more than 30 times in Thursday night's vice presidential debate, with both candidates pledging to cut taxes for the elusive center.
We asked TODAY.com readers to tell us how they define the middle class, and their responses were about quality of life as much as about income: The ability to pay your bills on time, at least most of the time. The aspiration to send your children to college. The idea of being better off than your parents.
Many told us they equate middle class with financial security, although they differed on how much security you need to fall into middle class spectrum.
“I really define middle class as someone that owns their own home, has at least two cars, pays their bills on time, and can afford to buy things without having the charges sit on credit for a long period of time,” wrote James Gunnarson, 37, a system administrator from Bridgetown, Ohio.
Gunnarson said in an e-mail that he consider himself and his wife to be on the higher end of middle class because they can afford most things they need without too much financial hardship. He doesn’t give politicians credit for his family’s success.
“We got to this point by making the right decisions, not by tax cuts or politicians,” he wrote.
Others said you can be less financially secure and still qualify as middle class.
Frances Eve Salinas, 32, of Dallas, wrote that middle class is “the area in between living financially comfortably and worrying if the rent check will bounce.”
“I see myself as middle class based on this concept: I earn enough money to live – week by week. No more, no less,” said Barb Witkow, 60, who lives in Bellevue, Wash., and works as a psychotherapist.
Witkow makes about $85,000 a year, but she pays about $2,000 a month in student loan and credit card payments and another $1,100 for rent. That leaves her with little for extras like clothes or vacations, let alone bigger expenses like health insurance. She shares a home with two other women and expects to work until she is 75 or 80.
“I dwell in the MIDDLE – getting by. I (feel) blessed that I have this status of being able to survive, AND saddened that I can only get by,” she wrote to TODAY.
Many readers said they were grappling with a feeling of slipping backward.
Ann Lowe, 35, said she grew up in a middle- to upper middle-class home, but the economic struggles of recent years have left her feeling more like she is closer to lower middle class.
Both she and her husband, who live in Charlotte, N.C., make less money than they once did and have put off starting a family and buying a home for financial reasons. By contrast, she said, her own parents seemed to be on a much better path by the time they were the age she is now.
“I am very hopeful that the economy will recover over the next few years and we will be able to see some degree (of) upward mobility in our lives, but with each passing year it is looking less and less likely that we will be better off than -- or even equally as successful as -- our parents,” Lowe wrote.
Jennifer Sale, 38, finds some comfort in the fact that there is no official cutoff for the middle class. Sale, a receptionist in Henrico, Va., struggles to pay her bills on time. She and her husband didn’t go to college, but she remains hopeful that their children will.
“I for one am glad there’s no definition for middle class. If I were told that my family was poor, it would be hard not to lose hope,” Sale, 38, wrote to TODAY.
Steven Hafner, 50, still thinks of himself as middle class, even though he has in recent years had to grapple with stagnant to declining wages.
Hafner, a research scientist who lives in Stafford Township, N.J., said that to him being in the middle class is about more than just wages. It’s also about education, social skills and the support to continuously improve your lot in life.
“In a nutshell I define middle class as having the potential for upward mobility,” Hafner said.