New polling from Essential Research today explores the thorny subject of income and class. What strongly emerges is that how much you make tends to determine how you view your own wealth and that of others.

Asked to define “middle income”, more voters picked $60,000-79,000 for singles and $80,000-99,000 for families than any other range. But those on lower incomes more commonly picked $40,000-59,000 for singles and $60,000-79,000 for families. High income earners tended to pick higher ranges: the median income identified by higher-income voters as “middle income” was $20,000 higher than that identified by low-income voters.

A similar weighting occurred in relation to defining “well-off” for singles and families — the range of incomes nominated by low, middle and higher-income voters rose with income, with 25% of higher-income voters nominating $200,000 or more as “well-off” for a family.

Again, with “wealthy”, 34% of higher-income voters thought an income over $300,000 met the criteria, compared to 32% of lower-income voters who thought incomes up to $120,000 constituted wealthy.

There was also very strong agreement that social class still exists in Australia, with 86% agreeing that was the case, almost uniformly across income groups. But interestingly, higher-income earners tended to see themselves more as “middle class”. Very few were prepared to identify as upper class. In fact, 50% of all voters declared themselves to be “middle class”, including nearly a third of very low income earners.

So while we all agree that class exists, the “upper class” is apparently something occupied by someone else, not us, even if we make enough money to do so. Just like being “rich” or even “well-off” is something people with higher income than us are, no matter how much we make.

Wealth, it seems, is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey