Aristotle said that the best cities are composed mostly of middle-class people, but what exactly does a term like “middle class” mean in the Bay Area today?
According to the personal finance site Go Banking Rates, it can mean a substantial six-figure salary. In a piece published last week titled “The Middle Class Isn’t Dead,” the site singled out San Francisco as one of 20 U.S. cities where middle-class incomes are rising.
The article defines “middle class” through a straightforward calculation about income: middle-class households are those making at least two-thirds of a city’s median income or up to double the median (before taxes).
Here’s the breakdown across the Bay Area:
- San Francisco: Median household income $96,265, middle-class income range $64,177 to $192,530.
- Oakland: Median household income $63,251, middle-class income range $42,167 to $126,502.
- San Jose: Median household income $96,662, middle-class income range $64,441 to $193,324.
- Fremont: Median household income $122,191, middle-class income range $81,461 to $244,382.
Those are some eye-popping figures, to be sure. But these calculations might be on the conservative side—the median household income comes by way of the U.S. Census and reflects 2017 numbers, meaning that odds are these numbers are now even higher.
San Francisco City Hall doesn’t define terms like “middle class,” but the Mayor’s Office of Housing does apply some similar formulas when determining what it considers median income, based off of household size.
In 2018, the single-person median in SF was $82,900 per year, while a family of four is $118,400. Applying the two-thirds to double formula gives a rough “middle class” range of anywhere from over $55,000 to $165,800 for one person, or between $79,000 and $236,800 or a four-person household.
It’s important to keep in mind that these kinds of back-of-the-envelope numbers are not very sensitive to context. In 2018, Pew Research created an income calculator that factors in cost of living by region.
Note that Pew uses the same rough formula as Go Banking Rates, but comes to more nuanced conclusions.
For example, $192,530 per year is “in the upper-income tier”—that is, the top 30 percent of earners—for a household of up to three people in San Francisco. But for four persons under the same income, that counts as middle class.
On the other end of the scale, $64,177 is indeed “middle class” for one person, according to Pew, but would be in the “lower-income tier” for a household of four.
For the curious, the Pew tool estimates that it would take a household of 36 people for $192,530 to qualify as “lower income” in SF.
Note that Pew uses 2016 data.
To get an idea of just how ephemeral a term middle class can be, the same Pew research discovered that 62 percent of Americans consider themselves middle class but have difficulty defining the term. Only two percent of people consider themselves upper class.