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What does it mean to be 'middle class?'

President Obama and Mitt Romney have different definitions on what it means to be middle class. What does the term really mean?

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President Barack Obama greets the crowd after a campaign stop at the historic Fire Station No.1, in downtown Roanoke, Virginia, July 13. Obama traveled to southwest Virginia to discuss choice in this election between two fundamentally different visions on how to grow the economy, create middle-class jobs and pay down the debt.

Don Petersen/AP

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In a recent speech, President Barack Obama referred to the "middle class" 14 times, defining it as a family that makes up to $250,000 a year. Republican challenger Mitt Romney has looked at it from the other direction, saying that someone who falls into poverty "is still middle class."

In the fuzzy labels and loose speech of this political season, "middle class" has ballooned to cover just about everyone. So what does the term really mean?

There's no official definition.

If anything, a slew of economic data suggests a middle class that's actually shrinking. Mid-wage manufacturing and other jobs are disappearing due to automation and outsourcing, while lower-income positions and poverty spike higher. The White House's chief economist, Alan Krueger, said in January that the middle class fell from 50 percent of U.S. households in 1970 to 42 percent in 2010, as more families moved to the extreme ends of income distribution.

But it's not just about economic ranges. And politicians are not bound by such gauges anyway.

"Politicians love to use the term, because it's vague and connotes an image of regular American people." said Dennis Gilbert, a sociology professor at Hamilton College and author of "The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality." He said, the varying uses of "middle class" on the campaign trail are "dishonest, and it's absurd."

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