How Is Middle Class Defined in Palo Alto?

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Two men eat lunch and converse at Local Union 271, a farm-to-table restaurant on University Avenue in Palo Alto, on Aug. 25, 2016.  (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

How do you define “middle class?” According to a recent survey in the Palo Alto Weekly, 81 percent of residents consider themselves middle class, even though they’d be considered wealthy by national standards.

I met with Stanford University senior and freelance writer Fiona Kelliher in downtown Palo Alto to talk about her piece and what her findings reveal about the people who call Palo Alto home.

"The biggest surprise for me was the sheer number of people who describe themselves as middle class," Kelliher says.

Kelliher's survey, which was conducted in December and early January, received 250 responses. Most identified as middle class, their salaries ranging from $30,000 to $400,000. Part of this label, according to Kelliher, might be about optics. She found that for many people she interviewed, calling themselves wealthy is kind of a bad thing.

"That's fascinating to me," Kelliher says. "One sociologist puts it as a moral stigma around wealth. And I think that really does hold true here. I will say, though, I think the key caveat of a lot of these elements that we're parsing out is that the cost of living really is astronomical, too. Looking at it from the outside, a lot of people would agree that people here are wealthy, but from the way they feel day to day and the kinds of spending choices that they make, they feel differently."


The Cultural Divide

The median income in Palo Alto is about $137,000, which is more than twice the U.S. median of $57,000 a year. But Kelliher found that calling yourself “middle class” in Palo Alto doesn’t always refer to how much money you make. Educational level, culture and spending choices also factor into the self-identification.

Kelliher says almost everyone she talked to had a shared experience of feeling that the high cost of living impacts the culture of the city.

"I think they are to the extent that people feel somewhat united in this," she says. "The difficulty of living in Palo Alto, and that means different things for different people for sure. But it's a very common conversation to complain about housing costs or to talk about just the general craziness of living in the area."

Freelance writer Fiona Kelliher at Heritage Park in downtown Palo Alto. Kelliher says she was surprised that more than 80 percent of residents who responded to her survey classified themselves as middle class. (Tonya Mosley)

Kelliher also found there is a growing cultural divide between the people who have lived in the city a while and the newcomers.

"One respondent described this driving wedge between residents as there's the old group and there's the rich group," she says.

It's a broad generalization, says Kelliher, but the basic idea is that some of the longtime residents who own their homes likely could not afford them if they tried to buy today.

"And then you have a younger group who are renting or who are homeowners, and they're just at a different point in life. They have young families, both parents are working and have generally high mortgages, and that's just a lot of stress in that environment. We heard from various people who described just the difficulty of really connecting with your neighbors in these cases."

Ultimately, Kelliher says she wants her reporting to illuminate the realities and complexities of living in Palo Alto.

"I think each individual experience that one has makes them think that it is the most real version of the area. But the fact is, in a place that has all of these conflicting elements and groups, it begs the question: Why are we all so tightly in our bubbles, and how can we start to break out of that a little bit?"