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How Americans define "rich," in one chart

There's no hard definition of what it means to be rich, and Americans disagree widely on the question as well. But one thing is for sure: the answer varies heavily with how much money you make.

In a recent column, Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard Reeve digs up 2011 poll data from Roper and Gallup to show how wide-ranging our definitions of "rich" are — more specifically, Americans have a tendency to define those who earn more than them — as rich.

Rich chart

(Brookings)

The data is a few years old, but the point is pretty clear: being "rich" has a fluid definition, and that fluidity has a pointedly upward direction.

The majority of people making less than $30,000 say it takes less than $100,000 to be rich. Then look at people those poorer Americans would consider rich — those making $50,000 to $99,000 — and the majority of those people think it takes still more money ($100,000 to $499,000) to be rich. Then look at people in that group — those making over $100,000 are far more likely than anyone else to say it takes $500,000 or more to be rich.

This is particularly fascinating when you also consider a 2013 Wall Street Journal Poll in which Americans of a wide range of incomes disproportionately considered themselves to be the definition of middle class. And when Gallup gave them five different classes to choose from, Americans picked "middle" 42 percent of the time (they said upper class 2 percent of the time). Americans are often described as individualistic, but we are also remarkably prone to defining ourselves into the vast middle of the economic pack. The people above us — wherever we are on the income scale — are the truly rich people, how we see it.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this post originally said 2 percent of Americans said "upper middle class," not "upper class."

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