Everything politicians have been bemoaning about the vanishing middle class is true, according to a major new study released yesterday by the Pew Research Center, but it’s not as simple as a campaign slogan might suggest.
In early 2015, there were fewer people in the middle than at the lower and upper ends of the economic spectrum — “a demographic shift that could signal a tipping point,” according to the “nonpartisan fact tank” based in Washington, D.C.
“Thanks to factory closings and other economic factors, the country now has 120.8 million adults living in middle-income households,” NPR’s Marilyn Geewax reports on a movement that has been ongoing for four decades. “That compares with the 121.3 million who are living in either upper- or lower-income households.”
The middle class is defined as a three-person household with income from $41,900 to $125,600 in 2014.
Pew’s online summary of the study quickly points out, however, that “in at least one sense, the shift represents economic progress: While the share of U.S. adults living in both upper- and lower-income households rose alongside the declining share in the middle from 1971 to 2015, the share in the upper-income tier grew more.”
That’s not seen as good news in all quarters.
“Many analysts and policymakers regard the shift as worrisome for economic and social stability,” writes Don Lee for the Los Angeles Times. “Middle-income households have been the bedrock of consumer spending, and many liberals in particular view the declining middle as part of a troubling trend of skewed income gains among the nation's richest families.”
It's also, apparently, the catalyst for some of the support enjoyed by The Donald Who Would Be President.
“The prevailing view that the middle class is being crushed is helping to feed some of the popular anger that has boosted the populist politics personified by Donald Trump’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination,” write Sam Fleming and Shawn Donnan for the Financial Times in a story that leads the online edition for which they interviewed people around the U.S.
“The middle class is disappearing,” Alison Fuller, a 25-year-old college graduate working for a medical start-up in Smyrna, Ga., tells them. “The Fullers have a three-bedroom home but about $100,000 in student debt,” they write. Although Fuller is “uneasy with some of Trump’s policies,” she feels he “overall would be good for this nation,” and would reduce taxes for the middle class.
Richard Fry, a co-author of the Pew study, tells CBS News’ Anthony Mason: “It's not that the middle Americans are worse off, it's that they're falling behind relative to upper income adults.” Mason interviews a single mother of two in New Jersey who works three part-time jobs as a social worker after losing a government job during the recession.
“I think the toughest part is not preparing a future for my children that my parents prepared for me,” Meredith Reilly tells Mason, who also points out that “the upper income bracket has grown from 14% to 21% of Americans” and now takes home 49% of annual income in the U.S., up from 29% in 1970. The middle class, meanwhile, saw its median wealth fall by 28% between 2001 and 2013.
According to the study, “married adults (both with and without children at home) are more likely than unmarried adults to live in upper-income households and less likely to be in lower-income households,” Tony Lee reports for Brietbart, and white and Asians “are more likely than black and Hispanic adults to be in the upper-income tier, and they are less likely to be in the lower-income tier.”
Also, “over the longer term, black adults sustained the largest increase in income status from 1971 to 2015 and were the only major racial or ethnic group to experience a decline in their lower-income share.”
Meanwhile, it pays to be gray.
“Senior citizens were most likely to have shifted into the upper class since 1971,” Tami Luhby points out for CNN Money. “The share of Americans age 65 and over in the upper bracket increased nearly 27% over that time. … Those most likely to fall into the lower class were those with only a high school degree and high school dropouts, as well as unmarried men.”
In a piece that argues that “the full picture is more nuanced than the ‘death of the middle class’ narrative so often heard on the campaign trail,” FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman points out that “the rapid rise in the number of immigrants in the late 20th century pushed down median incomes because immigrants, on average, make less money.”