Share of U.S. households by income range, 1967-2013. The middle class, if defined as households making between $35,000 and $100,000 a year, shrank in the final decades of the 20th century. For a welcome reason, though: More Americans moved up into what might be considered the upper middle class or the affluent. Since 2000, the middle class has been shrinking for a decidedly more alarming reason: Incomes have fallen. Graphic: The New York Times

25 January 2015

(The New York Times) – The middle class that President Obama identified in his State of the Union speech last week as the foundation of the American economy has been shrinking for almost half a century.

In the late 1960s, more than half of the households in the United States were squarely in the middle, earning, in today’s dollars, $35,000 to $100,000 a year. Few people noticed or cared as the size of that group began to fall, because the shift was primarily caused by more Americans climbing the economic ladder into upper-income brackets.

But since 2000, the middle-class share of households has continued to narrow, the main reason being that more people have fallen to the bottom. At the same time, fewer of those in this group fit the traditional image of a married couple with children at home, a gap increasingly filled by the elderly.

This social upheaval helps explain why the president focused on reviving the middle class, offering a raft of proposals squarely aimed at concerns like paying for a college education, taking parental leave, affording child care and buying a home. […]

The definition here starts at $35,000 — which is about 50 percent higher than the official poverty level for a family of four — and ends at the six-figure mark. Although many Americans in households making more than $100,000 consider themselves middle class, particularly those living in expensive regions like the Northeast and Pacific Coast, they have substantially more money than most people.

However the lines are drawn, it is clear that millions are struggling to hang on to accouterments that most experts consider essential to a middle-class life.

“I would consider middle class to be people who can live comfortably on what they earn, can pay their bills, can set aside something to save for retirement and for kids in college and can have vacations and entertainment,” said Christine L. Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a left-leaning research and advocacy group. […]

Even as the American middle class has shrunk, it has gone through a transformation. The 53 million households that remain in the middle class — about 43 percent of all households — look considerably different from their middle-class predecessors of a previous generation, according to a New York Times analysis of census data.

In recent years, the fastest-growing component of the new middle class has been households headed by people 65 and older. Today’s seniors have better retirement benefits than previous generations. Also, older Americans are increasingly working past traditional retirement age. More than eight million, or 19 percent, were in the labor force in 2013, nearly twice as many as in 2000.

As a result, while median household income, on average, has fallen 9 percent since the turn of the century, it has jumped 14 percent among households headed by older adults. […]

According to a New York Times poll in December, 60 percent of people who call themselves middle class think that if they work hard they will get rich. But the evidence suggests that goal is increasingly out of reach. When middle class people look up, they see the rich getting richer while they spin their wheels.

“The middle has basically stayed the same; it hasn’t improved,” said Lawrence F. Katz, an economist at Harvard University. “You’ve got an iPhone now and a better TV, but your median income hasn’t changed. What’s really changed is the penthouse has become supernice.” [more]

Middle Class Shrinks Further as More Fall Out Instead of Climbing Up



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