Rich and Poor – A Quick Guide Beyond the Numbers

By Rachel Puryear

We all have a sense of what it means to be rich, poor, or in the middle.

Official definitions of rich, poor, and middle tend to be quantitative – that is, determined by how much income one has, and maybe also how much wealth they possess.

There are good reasons to create such quantitative definitions of class. For instance, poverty guidelines help determine who needs assistance. Meanwhile, knowing who is well-off might (hopefully) help the wealthy appreciate their good fortune, and desire to do good with it. Understanding relative income spreads helps determine equitable taxation systems. And so forth.

However, there is value in also developing and understanding qualitative definitions of class – that is, how circumstances and opportunities factor into class, beyond just the numbers.

For anyone interested in financial independence; understanding more about how people become trapped in poverty, yet also readily get richer the richer they get, is important.

With that in mind, here’s a look at five levels of class, defined in qualitative terms:

One person pulling an empty pocket out of his ripped pants, next to another person putting a stack of money into his nice pants.


The underclass is poor, and doesn’t have much, if anything. That much is clear.

However, what distinguishes the underclass is having serious, persistent barriers to things which could help them get out of poverty – such as (improved) employment, further education and career development, and building marketable skills.

Such barriers seriously limit increased earnings above the poverty level, and accordingly also limit the ability to acquire and build wealth.

Social worker interviewing refugee in a tent camp.

The underclass includes – but is not necessarily limited to – people who are chronically unemployed or homeless, people with severely limited education and skills, people who lost their livelihood for various reasons, people who are consumed by addiction or severe mental illness, many undocumented immigrants, people subject to widespread discrimination (like racism), many convicted felons; as examples.

In short, the underclass is defined by poverty, combined with major obstacles preventing someone from escaping poverty. To improve their standard of living, not only would they need opportunities to earn more, but also ways to get past other significant barriers.

Lower Class

The lower class may or may not live below official poverty levels. Even if they’re above the poverty level, though, their earnings are lower than average.

Young woman working in a warehouse.

People in the lower class may or may not rely on assistance to meet their basic needs. Even if they are able to meet their needs and obligations through employment, though; they don’t make enough money to save substantial amounts of money over the long run, and thereby build wealth.

In short, the lower class has below average earnings that limit their ability to save and invest. However, they could likely improve their standard of living given reasonable opportunities to get more low-cost education, learn higher-paying job skills, and increased financial sophistication.

Middle Class

The middle class enjoys a great deal more comfort and ability to build greater wealth than the lower classes do. However, what distinguishes them from the upper classes is the reliance on continued employment – and that the loss of employment for more than a fairly short period, or even serious financial mistakes or misfortunes, could be quite devastating financially.

American tract houses in middle-income neighborhood.

In short, the middle class has a moderate degree of comfort, and some ability to save money and build wealth over time; but is dependent upon continued employment and reasonable financial savvy (and luck in avoiding financial disaster) to do so.

Upper Class

The upper class enjoys not only a large amount of comfort and financial security, but they also have enough wealth and ability to generate further wealth that they don’t need to necessarily rely upon employment earnings to get by. They can choose to work, or not – this is the essence of financial independence.

Luxurious, large villa with an infinity pool.

In short, the upper class is defined by financial independence – having enough wealth to be able to enjoy a reasonably comfortable standard of living, independent of employment.

Ruling Class

This is a tiny number of people at the very top. Certainly, they are extraordinarily wealthy, and have net worths that would make your jaws drop.

They could never work again, spend lavishly every day for the rest of their lives, run through the streets tossing large dollar bills around, and still never run out of money. They don’t rely on employment earnings to sustain themselves, though this class includes owner shareholders of many top multinational corporations.

Dog dressed up in crown, and royal robes.

What distinguishes them from the rest of the upper class, however, is this – they have enough money, control and influence over the economy and other societal institutions, and social status and power; that they can influence lawmakers and economic systems (including taxation) to their advantage. They not only have tremendous wealth, but are able to maintain it through their enormous power and influence.

In short, the ruling class is defined by not only having a very comfortable life and financial independence, but so much wealth and power that they are able to influence laws and other powerful institutions in their favor.

A couple afterthoughts:

It’s a good idea to note that debt and other financial obligations can place two different people at different class levels, even if their earnings are similar.

For instance – someone earning a salary generally regarded as middle class, but who has huge amounts of debt, or several dependents; won’t have the same ability to save money and build wealth as someone else with a similar salary, but fewer financial obligations.

Therefore, despite similar earnings, the former could be functionally lower class while the latter is functionally middle class.

This is another reason why quantitative definitions of class alone don’t show the whole picture.

Furthermore; although we like to believe that necessitating work for survival stimulates innovation and productivity, just think of what people would create and produce if they didn’t have to depend upon working in order to make a living.

Many people famous for their creativity and leadership came from wealthier families – perhaps because they could focus on developing their crafts and skills, rather than just on getting by.

Love this blog, find it helpful and fun, and want to help support it? Check out the following personally recommended readings in order to help you make the most of what you’ve got:

Millionaire Expat: How to Build Wealth Living Overseas, by Andrew Hallam

If you want the benefits of investing but the subject makes your eyes glaze over, this is the book for you! In short, you don’t have to work hard or learn complicated systems to invest and build your wealth. This book shows you how to do so simply, and easily – whether you actually live overseas, or not!

Ninja Selling: Subtle Skills. Big Results., by Larry Kendall

You don’t need to be in real estate or even sales to glean some good advice from this book. It does offer a fresh perspective on developing your career, and how to get ahead being a decent and helpful person – instead of an asshole who throws everyone else under the bus to get ahead.

Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not, by Robert Kiyosaki

Financial knowledge doesn’t fix all financial problems. At the same time, many people – myself included – could be a lot better off today financially, if we had learned important lessons about money and making financial decisions a lot earlier on in life. Help yourself and the next generation do better.

Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to a deeper understanding of meanings of wealth and poverty.

Got a question you want answered through this blog? Submit your question to me here – and if you don’t already, please request to subscribe to the Free Range Life newsletter while you’re there!

Check out my other blog, too – World Class Hugs, at It’s about celebrating the empathic, gifted, and giving people of the world, overcoming the self-limiting patterns we’re prone to, nature trips, and curious spirituality.

Note: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. As an Amazon associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.


4 Comments Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: