Tri-Cities households have undergone changes in the wake of the Great Recession that may not be as dramatic as reports on the “hollowing out of the middle-class” but are reshaping local demographics.
For instance: The number of middle-income households has increased by almost 6% since the recession. Most of that growth is in the $50,000 and below range but $50,000-to-$99,999 households also increased.
But before we get into the weeds for more data there’s a distinction that has to be made.
I’m not going to try to define middle-class. Although it’s often used in conjunction with middle-income households, middle-class has no precise meaning. Everyone who uses it understands by their own terms. In reality, it’s more about how people feel about themselves and their lot in life than how much income they have. A common definition is individuals who have a comfortable standard of living, economic security, and rely on their expertise to sustain themselves Depending on the model used, the middle class constitutes anywhere from 25% to 66% of households. And there are subgroups to the middle class, but that’s another story.
There’s one loose definition that links middle class with household incomes by saying it ranges from 30% above and below the local household median income. That may be a good benchmark, but it sure provides some headaches when using Census data because it doesn’t mesh with the way Census folks use household income data.
Census data groups households by income in 10 line items. For the purposes of this look at that data let’s consider the first three groups as the lower-income range. It begins with less than $10,000 a year and tops out at $24,999 a year.
The middle-income range begins at $25,000 and ends at $99,999. If we use the 30% above-and-below the local household median income to gauge middle-class households these four groups fit the bill in the Tri-Cities. But that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone in those income ranges would say they have a comfortable standard of living and security. This is the demographic range that houses hotbeds of populism that are anti-government and anti-institutions.
The final household income range begins at $100,000 a year and goes to $200,000 or more.
A comparison of the current Census data to a 2008 pre-recession benchmark shows most of the middle-income household growth came in the second tier of Johnson City’s middle-income households. The number of households in the bottom tier increased in Bristol and Kingsport and declined in Johnson City. Households in the middle-income top tier increased in all three cities with Kingsport claiming the lion’s share. While the number of households in this range increased in Johnson City its share of the total was down due to the city’s population increase.
So, what is the big picture?
According to current Census data the largest share of households in Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport are in the middle-income range. They account for over half of all households.
Bristol has the largest share of middle-income households followed by Kingsport then Johnson City.
Johnson City has the distinction of having the largest share of higher and lower-income households.
Two upcoming posts will look at how the share of households in the lower and upper-income ranges have changed in the restructuring from the Great Recession.