The term ‘middle class’ is one bandied about quite a lot. Among other instances, the most recent tax compromise package was entitled “The Middle Class Tax Relief Act of 2010” and the White House has a “Middle Class Task Force”. At times, it seems as though ‘middle class’ is what most every American claims to be. But what exactly does ‘middle class’ mean?

According to the debate around the recent tax bill, ‘middle class’ was apparently anyone making $250,000 a year or below. Yet data from a new report by the Foundation for Child Development on income disparities and child well-being suggests that the “$250,000 and below” bracket definition may have been significantly overstated. The report finds that the true American middle class comprises an income range of $22,758 – $110,000 a year, with the median middle class income being $57,200 annually. The report also finds that 60 percent of our nation’s children live in families within this category (with 20 percent of children living below $22,758 a year and 20 percent of children living above $110,000 a year).

This combination of data should significantly change what our nation thinks about how the middle class is faring and what the middle class currently needs. When there is a stark ($140,000) difference between the rhetoric of who is America’s middle class and the reality of who it is, there is a danger that the actual experience of the majority of our population is being lost. An example of this played out in the President’s recent State of the Union address – which has been aptly praised for its optimism and focus on education, as well as points made that deficit reduction efforts should not come “on the backs of the most vulnerable citizens”. But, as was duly noted by columnist Charles Blow in a New York Times opinion piece last weekend, the speech was also notable for who it omitted – specifically those living in poverty and the struggling middle class.

We have written before on the escalating child poverty rates around the country, but according to the new Foundation for Child Development report, there is reason to believe that the ‘middle class’ is not the stable, economically secure status we are led to believe. Of particular note in the report findings were data points that reveal children in middle-class families have been losing ground since even before the start of the recession; the income gap between families is widening significantly; the rate of secure parental employment for children in middle-class families has been falling; and that child well-being overall has been on a steady decline since the year 2000.

But as the indicators measuring income disparities went up, so too did middle class families’ reliance on public programs, notably children’s health insurance (CHIP) and publicly-funded Pre-Kindergarten. And what the report makes evident is that these programs work: increases in Medicaid and the creation of CHIP have resulted in a “sharp decrease in the number of uninsured children” and without increased public funding for Pre-K, “enrollments would have declined instead of growing”. This is important validation for these programs, but budget cuts and freezes on the local, state, and federal level may threaten their success. One way to counter such cuts may be to show that there is a larger constituency for public children’s programs than policymakers may realize.

The ‘middle class’ may be popular, but it is also in need.

For more information click here to download the Foundation for Child Development’s new report “Declining Fortunes of Children in Middle-Class Families”.