I’m not an economist so I can’t answer all of these questions. I’m just saying that I think looking at income and/or assets (or a combination) does provide a decent picture of someone’s “place” in our country regardless of how that person feels. Economists do gather loads of data on both income and net worth (separately) and I think looking at them in tandem is valuable. For non-working people I would think looking at assets would be the approach taken, but I’m not certain.
I also think there is enormous push-back to this economics approach, which does not exist when talking about the social approach, even though the social approach is far less defined. I think this is why so many of us describe ourselves as middle income when we aren’t. I find the reticence to put any stock into economic class is more prevalent the higher income you go. I think there’s a reason for that.
I personally would not view someone who makes $100k a year but chose to go $300k into debt as being in an identical situation to someone making $25k a year who chose to take on zero debt. But then again, there are plenty of people who live the majority of their lives as high income people and end up destitute due to spending. When they end up destitute and on public assistance, with a very low income and no assets, then I would consider them low income. They are different in their life trajectory, though, which is why I mentioned that your way of seeing things (social class) is still important.
I think both types of class (social and economic) are important and valid, but I think when you tell people social class is important they agree almost immediately and when you tell them economic class is important there is enormous pushback. I think that dynamic is due to the appeal of self-identification and I think it hurts people on both ends of the income/wealth/assets spectrum.
I suppose I’m drawing from my own experiences and thinking about people I know who always feel poor and believe they can’t get ahead even when they’ve quadrupled their income and are statistically in the top 10% of earners. There is some pride element to that too, I think, in feeling like the underdog. I’m also thinking of people who were born middle income or + and continually minimize what they have, which I think can also be harmful. If you feel scarcity (even if it’s false) are you less likely to donate money? If you feel you have less than you have does that impact gratitude? Perspective? I don’t know. Just thoughts.