The nation’s middle class, long a pillar of the U.S. economy and foundation of the American dream, has shrunk to the point where it no longer constitutes the majority of the adult population, according to a new major study.
The Pew Research Center report released Wednesday put in sharp relief the nation’s increasing income divide, which is certain to be a central issue in the 2016 presidential race. It also highlights how various economic and demographic forces have eroded long-held ideals about maintaining a strong, majority middle class.
Many analysts and policymakers regard the shift as worrisome for economic and social stability. 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.
Median-income voters, particularly non-college-educated men, are also at the core of billionaire Donald Trump’s surprising surge in the Republican presidential campaign. His supporters’ sense that their once-secure middle-class standing is in danger of slipping appears to be fueling much of the anger against the government and immigrant groups.
The tipping point for the middle class occurred over the last couple of years of the recovery from the Great Recession as the economy continued to reward highly educated workers, well-to-do investors and those with technical skills.
Rapid growth of upper-income households, coupled with an increase in less-educated low earners, has driven the decline of the middle-income population to a hair below 50% of the total this year, Pew found. In 1971, the middle class accounted for 61% of the population, and it has been declining steadily since.
The Pew research found that the shares of upper-income and lower-income households grew in recent years as the middle shrank — with the higher-income tier growing more. In that sense, the nonpartisan group said, “the shift represents economic progress.”
Pew defined middle class as households earning two-thirds to twice the overall median income, after adjusting for household size. A family of three, for example, would be considered middle income if its total annual income ranged from about $42,000 to $126,000. Pew analyzed data from the Census Bureau and the Labor Department, as well as the Federal Reserve.
Most Americans have traditionally identified themselves as middle class, even those at the top and bottom, reflecting a kind of cultural heritage tied to the American dream of self-reliance. But the Great Recession and subsequent slow recovery have shaken that image.
A Gallup survey this spring showed that just 51% of U.S. adults considered themselves middle or upper middle class, with 48% saying they are part of the lower or working class. As recently as 2008, 63% of those polled by Gallup said they were middle class.
This change in self-identification — and the reality of the shift documented by Pew — carries political ramifications as the state of the middle class continues to be a major focus of the economic debate in the presidential campaigns, with candidates, in time-honored fashion, invoking the middle class in their speeches and policy statements. President Obama has dubbed his programs “middle-class economics.”
Patrick Egan, a politics professor at New York University, says the Pew findings and the Gallup surveys suggest that the public may be more open to policies of redistribution.
“Americans are always kind of reluctant to embrace open class warfare,” Egan said. But “if more Americans are under the idea of placing themselves at the bottom, you’ll see politicians follow.”
Although the median incomes of upper, lower and middle tiers have all lost ground since 2000, primarily because of the Great Recession in late 2007 to mid-2009, upper-income households saw the smallest decline through 2014, the Pew study found.
Seen over a longer period, from 1971 to 2014, the median income of all upper-income households increased 47% to $174,625. The median income for the middle tier rose 34% to $73,392, and for the lower income group, it was up 28% to $24,074. The median marks the halfway point.
Read more: LA Times